Asked how worried Britons should be by the spread of the mutant virus, Johnson said, “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it, it has been spreading.”
Public Health England said it is “at least as transmissible” as B.1.1.7, which is known as the UK variant or the Kent variant.
“At the moment there is a very wide range of scientific opinion about what could happen. We want to make sure that we take all the prudential, all the cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do,” said Johnson.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is holding a meeting on Thursday to discuss the spread of the Indian variant, amid fears it could have an impact on the government’s road map out of the COVID-19 lockdown.
“There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out, of course,” Johnson told reporters when visiting a primary school in Ferryhill, County Durham.
But he said the nation is still on track to reopen indoor hospitality services and international travel on May 17, and to lift all legal restrictions on June 21, as planned in the government’s road map.
“At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere, but there may be things that we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get,” he said.
Johnson said he was “cautiously optimistic” about reopening the country. “Provided this Indian variant, B.1.617.2, doesn’t take off in the way that some people fear, I think certainly things could get back much, much closer to normality.”
Professor James Naismith from the University of Oxford said the variant may spread “way beyond” the local areas where it has been detected, suggesting much wider community transmission of the variant.
“I think we should view it as a countrywide problem,” he told BBC Radio 4’s "Today" programme. “It will get everywhere. We keep learning this lesson, but we know that this will be the case.”