Boris Johnson has warned that infection rates will “inevitably” rise as lockdown restrictions ease.
The Prime Minister said the public needed to be aware that progress made in the battle against the virus was not only due to the vaccine rollout but the lockdown measures.
“Of course the vaccination programme has helped, but the bulk of the work in reducing the disease has been done by the lockdown,” he told reporters at Downing Street.
“As we unlock, the result will inevitably be that we will see more infection, sadly we will see more hospitalisation and deaths, and people have just got to understand that.”
However he insisted that the roadmap out of lockdown was still on track.
Mr Johnson said: “I can’t see any reason for us to change the route, to deviate from the targets we’ve set ourselves, May 17, June 21, the next way marks on the roadmap.
“But it is very, very important that if we are to get there in the way we all want that people continue to be cautious and they continue to exercise restraint and the basic things to stop the spread of the virus – – washing your hands, giving people plenty of space, doing things in fresh air.”
Mr Johnson hailed the success of the jabs rollout, which the Government says has now offered first doses to all the top priority groups.
He insisted he was “very confident” about vaccine supplies, as a third vaccine, made by Moderna, began its rollout in England on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister said: “This always was going to be the ‘second dose’ month and people should come forward for their second doses and people who are called from the 45-49 (age) group should come forward and get theirs.”
Mr Johnson’s warning came as pubs and restaurants began serving punters outdoors on Monday as part of step 2 of the lockdown roadmap.
Shoppers queued up in the high streets as non-essential shops reopened for the first time in months, with gyms and indoor pools also throwing up their doors.
But indoor mixing – either at home or in the pub – is still banned until the next phase of lockdown easing, which will come after May 17 at the earliest.
Rule of six remains in place for outdoor meet-ups, or two households of any number, until that date.
Holidays abroad are also banned until at least next month.
Downing Street said the emergence of a cluster of cases of the South African variant in South London was being taken seriously but there was nothing in the data at present to delay the plans to unlock the country.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I think this is something that we are taking very seriously and the effective surge testing processes that we have in place have been working well here.
“We know that variants do pose a risk, it’s one of our four tests for the progression of the road map.
“But as I said we have strong measures in place to find and isolate any new cases. In this specific area, in Lambeth and Wandsworth, everyone living, working or travelling throughout these boroughs should get a PCR test even if they don’t have symptoms. “
Asked if the roadmap could be delayed, the spokesman said: “I think the PM made clear in his clip that at the moment there is nothing in the data to suggest changes to any of the roadmap as set out.”
Asked if the unlocking could go more slowly in London due to concerns over the new variant, the spokesman said: “No.”
It comes after warnings from scientists that there could be another wave of the virus – even with the successful rollout of the vaccine rollout.
Professor Jeremy Brown, a member of the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation which decides the jab priority list, warned that there could be a “big third wave” of Covid-19, with potentially tens of thousands of deaths.
“I feel mighty relieved that we are now in a position where a very high proportion of the vulnerable population have been vaccinated so, if control of the virus is lost, then the damage it can do will be relatively restricted,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“But when I say relatively restricted, what I mean is that a big third wave could still end up with 30,000 to 50,000 deaths, potentially, if it was a similar sort of size to the previous waves that we’ve had.
“So although the vaccines are important, there are the components to controlling this virus that are important and that is the social distancing measures that we have.”
He said it was vital for young people to get the jab, as “the bigger the proportion of the population that the vaccinated, the less we will need in a way of social distancing.”