MATT Hancock has dodged questions on whether delaying putting India on the travel red list caused the spread of the new variant in the UK.

During a heated discussion on Sky News, presenter Trevor Phillips accused the Health Secretary of not acting soon enough.

He pointed out that infections more than trebled in India from 72,330 on March 31 to 217,353 on April 15 – prompting the government to place neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan onto the red list on April 2.

The measures did not come into force until a week later – though India was still left off the list.

"I don't recognise those figures," the Health Secretary said.

But Phillips hit back, saying: "They're your numbers!"

Hancock went on: "What I can tell you is that as we saw the case rates rise in India and as we saw this new variant, the Delta variant, arriving and we took action to put India on the red list. It's tough action but I'm very glad that we took it."

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Phillips said: "Nobody is going to contest that you made the right call, tough action and all the rest of it. It's just that it took you a long a time and longer than it could have done. Looking back now, would you accept you could have done this days before the time when you did?"

He went on to say that it is estimated that 20,000 people flew in from India and could have spread the new Covid variant as Boris Johnson delayed imposing a travel ban.

The country was not added to the red list until April 23 - almost a month after the variant was first detected in the UK. 

Hancock responded: "Hindsight is very helpful. 

"But you have to take decisions you have at the time and you can't ask anybody to take decisions with information that isn't yet in your hands even if you'd like to predict the future." 

Philips responded: "I'm just reading information you had at the time - but let's deal with something that you're dealing with this week."

He added: "Are you worried that we are going to look like we don't care about the rest of world because we are going to extend the vaccination programme down the age range here when, for example, in Africa only 2.5% have been vaccinated and we could be giving more stocks now?"

Hancock said: "I'm going to answer this question but first I'm afraid you can't get away with making a comment on my previous answer and then just moving on when the comment was wrong.

"The information that you've been talking about was not available to ministers at that time. That is why we took those decisions." 

Hancock told the Andrew Marr Show that ministers are “absolutely open” to delaying the June 21 unlocking in England if the Indian variant worsens the country’s coronavirus recovery prospects.

He stressed that June 21 was a “not before” date and that it was only “pencilled in” as the next step out of lockdown.

The senior Government minister also implied that social distancing could continue beyond the final stage of the Prime Minister’s road map.

The comments come as Covid-19 cases have continued to surge in the UK amid reports Boris Johnson is considering delaying so-called freedom day by at least two weeks in order to allow more people to be fully vaccinated against the Indian variant.

The Health Secretary, pressed on whether the June 21 removal of restrictions could be postponed if the Indian variant data “gets bad”, said: “We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.

“We said in the road map that June 21 is the date by which we would not take Step 4 before that date and that we would look at the data.

“That is exactly what we are doing, so the road map was set up in order to be able to take these sort of changes into account.”

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Hancock admitted the emergence of the Indian variant, which has become dominant in the UK, had made the “calculation” on whether to proceed with unlocking this month “more difficult” as he confirmed the latest scientific advice is that the mutation – also known as the Delta variant – is 40% more transmissible than the Kent strain.

The Health Secretary said he “wouldn’t rule out” measures such as wearing face coverings in public settings and working from home where possible continuing in the long term.

“The way we are looking at this is Step 4 involves the removal of the remaining social restrictions like the rule of six and some of the business closures which are still there,” he told the show.

“And separately we have a piece of work on what the social distancing rules should be after that.”