The possibility of all coronavirus restrictions being lifted next month is “looking good”, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency has said.
Under the Government’s road map, the final stage of the unlocking is due to take place on June 21 at the earliest.
However, Dr Jenny Harries urged the public to be cautious to avoid another lockdown, warning that the new Indian variant has become the “dominant strain” in some parts of the country.
She told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “It’s looking good if people are continuing to observe all of the safety signals, so we should not stop doing what we’re doing, particularly in areas where we have that variant of concern, the B1617.2, in the north-west and around London.
“It’s really important that people continue to do hands, face, space and work from home, have their jabs and go for tests as well.
“The cases of the B1617.2 variant are rising, they have risen very steeply and much of the media have reported a 160% rise in cases over the week period but they seem to be slightly levelling at the moment.
“It’s still very early days.”
Dr Harries added: “We all need to be very cautious and I think we all don’t want to go back to the sort of lockdowns that we’ve had, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on Sage or out in the public, none of us want to return to that sort of restriction.”
From June 21 at the earliest, nightclubs are due to reopen and restrictions on large events such as festivals are to be lifted, as are restrictions on the number of people at weddings.
Dr Harries warned that caution should be taken as the new Indian strain is creating a “mixed picture” across the UK.
She added: “If you look at areas such as Bolton and Bedford, for example, in the north-west particularly, it’s starting to become the dominant strain and has taken over from the Kent variant, which has been our predominant one over the winter months.
“But that’s not the case right across the country, actually if you’re in the south-west that’s still not the case.”
The words of caution were echoed by Home Secretary Priti Patel, who said there would not be a “green light all the way” to unlocking restrictions.
Ms Patel said: “We all have to be conscientious. All of us that are out and about now, we are distancing, wearing masks, following all the rules.
“That is part of our normal life now and that will continue, and that, of course, will help us to that unlocking on June 21.”
Professor Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told BBC Breakfast: “I think there are uncertainties around the situation at the moment. I think, in a way, there’s been uncertainties all the way along.
“It’s always been a sort of provisional timetable and it has to be, or may have to be, adjusted according to events as they occur.
“When we get to June, whatever happens on that date, this global pandemic will not be over. It will still be going on.
“There’ll still be cases going on in this country, through Europe and around the world, so life is not suddenly going to go back to normal in June, because life won’t be really normal until this is brought under control.
“Life’s going towards normal but it’s not normal yet.”
The comments come after a study by Public Health England (PHE) found that the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is 88% effective against the Indian variant after two doses.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the outcome as “groundbreaking”, while PHE said it expects to see even higher levels of effectiveness against hospital admission and death.
The study, which took place between April 5 and May 16, found that the jab was found to be almost as effective against symptomatic disease from the B1617.2 strain as it is against the Kent variant, with 93% effectiveness.
Meanwhile, the AstraZeneca jab was 60% effective, compared with 66% against the Kent variant over the same period.
Both vaccines were 33% effective against symptomatic disease from the Indian variant three weeks after the first dose, compared with about 50% against the Kent strain.
New data from PHE shows there have been at least 2,889 cases of the Indian variant recorded in England from February 1 this year to May 18.
Of those, 104 cases resulted in a visit to a hospital emergency department, 31 required an overnight hospital admission and six resulted in a death.
The most common strain in England, according to the data, is the Kent variant, with 132,082 cases recorded over the same period.
Some 1,569 people have died with the variant, while 2,011 cases resulted in an overnight hospital admission and 5,238 required a visit to a hospital emergency department.
Separate analysis by PHE indicates that the vaccination programme has so far prevented 13,000 deaths and about 39,100 hospital admissions in older people in England, up to May 9.
Meanwhile, Downing Street said it was looking at ways to publish data on cases transmitted in different settings in a “robust and clear way”.
It comes after The Observer reported that data on the spread of the Indian variant in schools had been due to be published this week, but was not included in a PHE report on Thursday.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Twice a week, Public Health England publish a breakdown of the number of cases of each variant in the UK.
“Given public interest in variants of concern, we are looking at ways to publish cases transmitted in different settings in a robust and clear way. PHE will publish this data in due course.”
Latest figures show that more than 50 million doses of coronavirus vaccine have now been given in England.