People who are refusing to get the Covid vaccine are putting not just themselves at risk but also the over-50s and people with cancer, Downing Street has suggested.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said that the possible high transmissibility of the virus variant first found in India meant that it could put substantial burdens on the NHS if left unchecked.
With heightened concern that the variant is on the rise in areas like Bolton and parts of London, the spokesman also refused to rule out a return to a system of tiered or local lockdowns as England tried to come out of the pandemic.
Health secretary Matt Hancock revealed this weekend that more than half of those hospitalised with the new variant in Bolton, greater Manchester, had not had the jab even though they were eligible.
The spokesperson said: “We would want everybody, as has been said by people more notable than myself, to think of others as well as themselves when considering whether to get the vaccine.
“That’s what we’re seeing the vast majority of the public doing and we want that to continue.”
Downing Street was asked to comment on remarks by Tory MP Conor Burns, who said that it wouldn’t be right to keep the country in partial lockdown simply because vaccine hesitant people were refusing the jab.
Watch: Mobile vaccination bus in Nottingham runs out of doses in 1 hour despite anti-vaxx protest
The spokesperson explained that in the worst case scenario, the virus could be up to 50% more transmissible than even the variant first identified in Kent, which itself ripped through the UK in the New Year and prompted the latest lockdown.
“What we would be talking about then is a situation where not just individuals who are vaccine resistant or vaccine hesitant or those who have not sought out their first jab might catch coronavirus but those who have had the first dose or those who have had two doses but for whom vaccine efficacy is reduced,” he said.
“That would then lead to increased hospitalisations and put unsustainable pressure on our NHS. That’s the situation we are attempting to avoid here.”
England marked the third stage of the government’s “roadmap” out of lockdown on Monday, with indoor use of pubs and restaurants allowed for the first time in months. But plans for the release of remaining restrictions due on June 21 have been thrown into doubt by the rise of the Indian variant.
The spokesman added that the Indian variant had the potential to cause significant impact on the UK, including among those who have already had two doses of the vaccine but who have a poor immune system, such as cancer patients.
“It’s important to understand that this variant we are concerned about – which we know is more transmissible but we don’t know how much more – has the potential not only to seek out those individuals that haven’t been vaccinated for whatever reason, but those that are very willing to get vaccinated but are partway through, ie they’ve had one dose.
“And also those individuals for whom two doses of vaccine course isn’t as efficacious, so those that might have reduced immune response.”
Asked whether ministers would consider a return to a tiered system of rules, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “I don’t want to get ahead of where we are at the moment and start getting into hypothetical situations.
“As the prime minister has set out, we’ve moved as a country into step three, albeit with a very targeted increase in surge vaccinations and testing in these areas where we’re seeing rises and that’s what we want to proceed with if at all possible but we don’t want to rule anything out.
“And I think until we have more data and more evidence, we won’t be making those judgments.”
Watch: Do coronavirus vaccines affect fertility?
No.10 also said local areas should stick to guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which stated the best way to protect against the new variant was to ensure vulnerable groups got their second dose of the vaccine.
“This is a decision made by the JCVI about how best to deploy the vaccines we have, but we have deployed thousands more additional doses in Bolton so they can do this work of getting vaccinations to people,” the spokesperson said.
Asked whether the government would stop local officials giving vaccines to younger people, they said: “We want every part of the country to abide by the advice set out by the JCVI, it’s this unified approach that has allowed us to proceed so quickly with our vaccine rollout.”
They added that current guidance included flexibility to surge the number of vaccinations for those who were acting as carers for the elderly. Some have suggested that such a plan could help areas with high minority ethnic populations and multi-generational households.
Composer Lord Lloyd-Webber said people refusing to take up the offer of a coronavirus vaccine were “selfish” as they could hinder the ability to lift all restrictions from workplaces like theatres next month.
The peer told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “I just feel so strongly at the moment, particularly the people who are not getting vaccinated and everything, just how selfish it is because so many people depend on this June 21 date, they really depend on it.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.