Rising cases of the India variant of coronavirus could force the U.K. government to delay plans to end the pandemic lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned.

Speaking in London, the premier announced the government will speed up second doses of vaccines for the over-50s and for vulnerable groups in an effort to combat the new strain. The gap between first and second doses will be cut to eight weeks from 12 for these groups, he said.

“I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress,” Johnson said at a press conference. It could be “more difficult” to move to the final phase of lockdown easing on June 21, he said.

The number of confirmed infections of the strain more than doubled in the past week to 1,313 from 520, according to Public Health England. While there’s no evidence the India variant can evade vaccines, there are signs that it spreads more easily than the Kent mutation which ran rampant in the U.K. at the start of the year, prompting a third national lockdown.

The government expects to press ahead with the next phase of easing restrictions on Monday, which will bring the return of international leisure travel, and the reopening of pubs and restaurants indoors.

But officials are studying the data on infections, and the final stage of the “roadmap” for ending the lockdown and social-distancing rules — due on June 21 — is now in doubt, people familiar with the matter said.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the government will need to see positive data on infections and new variants for the plan to go ahead next month.

‘Cycle of Infection’

“We have got to break the cycle of infection, because one of those big tests was infection rates have to be suppressed, and the other big test is variants,” Zahawi told LBC radio. “If those cause a problem, then the tests will fail.”

Still, ministers are more likely to back a targeted surge in the vaccination program in areas where the India variant is more prevalent, rather than order local lockdowns, people familiar with the matter said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson would face resistance from within his ruling Conservative Party to any slowdown in lifting the lockdown. On Thursday, he said he is “anxious” about the spread of the India variant. He is due to hold a press conference later Friday.

Data from the Office of National Statistics released Friday showed another drop in infection rates, with now just one in 1,340 people in England estimated to be carrying Covid-19 in the week to May 8.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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