The Delta variant now makes up 91% of new UK coronavirus cases, the health secretary has said, amid a warning from Public Health England that infections are rising “rapidly”.
He said on Thursday that the 91% figure was from an assessment he saw “last night”.
Delta is believed to be around 40-60% more transmissible than the Kent (Alpha) variant, and appears to have helped push cases to their highest since February – more than 7,500 were reported on Wednesday. And nearly 7,400 were announced on Thursday.
Extra testing has been deployed to some areas, such as the North West, to try to limit its spread.
The health secretary also appears to have left the door open for future lockdown measures if current vaccines are not effective against new variants.
Mr Hancock told MPs that plans involve modifying vaccines “as fast as possible” – with a target of “having a variant vaccine and treatment and diagnostics within 100 days”.
He said he was “highly confident” a vaccine could be developed quickly but “in the meantime the tools we have at our disposal are the tools that are available”.
He did not deny that included lockdowns and social distancing and said he would “consider” publishing the plans for dealing with a new variant.
However, people who have had both doses of a Pfizer or AstraZeneca jab are believed to have strong protection against the Delta variant.
Meanwhile, younger people are driving the current increase in cases, according to Public Health England’s (PHE) medical director.
“Once again we are seeing cases rapidly rise across the country and the Delta variant is now dominant,” said Dr Yvonne Doyle on Thursday.
“The increase is primarily in younger age groups who are yet to receive the vaccine and we are seeing more hospital admissions.”
Case rates have increased in most age groups, with the highest level of 121 per 100,000 people among 20-29 year-olds.
The lowest rates were in over-80s, where it was 6.7 per 100,000.
Regionally, northwest England had the highest case rates – 149.6 per 100,000. The South West was the lowest, at 20.8.
Hospital admissions have also increased slightly, going from 0.90 per 100,000 to 1.09 in a week. However, like daily cases, they are much lower than the peak of the second wave in mid-January.
The number of people dying with COVID also decreased again according to PHE’s latest report, which covers 31 May to 6 June.
This supports UK-wide fatality figures that show the rolling seven-day average has remained flat over the last month or so, standing at 9.4 per day.
Data on hospitalisations and deaths will be one of the key criteria the government uses to judge whether the scrapping of most other restrictions can go ahead on 21 June.
The government is expected to announce its decision on Monday.