Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that plans to end lockdown restrictions in England next month are in jeopardy as the Indian Covid variant continues to spread.
Scientists fear the variant could be 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain, meaning coronavirus cases could rapidly increase if restrictions are lifted too soon.
‘Hard choices’ ahead
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that England will face “hard choices” if the Indian variant turns out to be much more transmissible than others.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said that could result in “a really significant surge” in infections, and predicted the variant could become the most dominant strain across the UK.
Despite growing concerns over the variant, Mr Johnson confirmed that the next phase of easing restrictions will go ahead as planned on Monday (17 May), which will see people able to mix indoors and physical contact will be permitted between households for the first time in over a year.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said it is “highly likely” the Indian strain is more transmissible than the one that emerged in Kent, and warned that there could be a peak in infections after Monday’s easing.
Sage said that if higher levels of transmissibility are confirmed, moving to step three on Monday could “lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations, similar to, or larger than, previous peaks”.
The scientists also acknowledged there “may be some reduction in protection” from vaccines on the Indian variant.
In the Downing Street briefing on Friday, the Prime Minister said: “I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.
“But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June.”
Rising number of cases
Cases of the Indian variant rose significantly in the UK this week, with data from Public Health England (PHE) showing numbers surged from 520 to 1,313.
The majority of cases of the India Covid strain are concentrated in the north-west of England, predominantly in Bolton, and in London.
The variant is also thought to be the reason behind half of coronavirus infections in Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen and South Northamptonshire, although these outbreaks are still small.
Outbreaks have also been identified in two areas of Tyneside and in Newcastle, while there are around 30 cases in parts of Scotland, including Glasgow, with PHE saying almost half of all cases are related to travel or contact with a traveller.
Prof Whitty said the variant was “quite widely seeded in a number of parts of England and indeed elsewhere in parts of the four nations of the United Kingdom” and could overtake the Kent strain to become dominant in the UK.
He warned the UK could see “a really significant surge” in Covid cases if it proves to be a lot more transmissible, adding: “That’s a really critical question to which we do not yet have the answer.”
Speeding up second doses
The PM has announced that second vaccine doses, which give people maximum protection against coronavirus, will now be brought forward for the over 50s and clinically vulnerable from the planned 12-week interval to eight weeks.
The army is also being deployed in parts of the North West which have suffered some of the highest rates of the Indian variant, and will hand out tests to help the surge testing efforts.
Surge testing is being carried out in several places in England including areas of Bolton, Blackburn, Sefton and London.
Mr Johnson urged people to “think really carefully” about the risk to loved ones, “especially if they haven’t had that second dose or if it hasn’t yet had time to take full effect”.