Government ‘anxious’ about Indian variant of concern as Covid cases rise in Bolton

Boris Johnson has hinted local restrictions may be needed to clamp down on areas with high case numbers of Indian strain

The government is “anxious” about the Indian variant of coronavirus and is “ruling nothing out” as a new Covid strain is found in the UK.

It comes as the majority of cases of the India Covid strain are concentrated in the north-west of England, predominantly in Bolton, and in London.

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Surge testing has been under way in parts of Bolton since 7 May, after Public Health England (PHE) confirmed the town is one of the main locations of the India variant, which was reclassified as a ‘variant of concern’ last week.

There are fears about rising infection rates among younger people in Bolton, the prime minister told reporters on a trip to Cleves Cross Primary school in County Durham (PA).

Scientists are keeping a close eye on the spread of the variant with new figures from Public Health England (PHE) on May 13 expected to show a big rise in cases.

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‘Variant of concern’

Speaking at a primary school in County Durham on May 13, the Prime Minister said: “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson helps out in the vegetable garden during a visit to Cleves Cross Primary school in Ferryhill, County Durham (PA).

“At the moment there is a very wide range of scientific opinion about what could happen.

“We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do.

“There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out.”

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is holding a meeting on May 13 to discuss the spread of the Indian variant, amid fears it could have an impact on the government’s road map out of lockdown.

Bolton has one of the highest rates of the Indian variant in the UK, thought to be mostly concentrated in the under-25s.

A spokeswoman for Blackburn with Darwen Council initially said extra vaccine doses had been secured so all people aged over 18 there could be offered the jab from next week amid rising cases.

But in a statement released later on Thursday, the council said the vaccine would not be widely available to over-18s but only available “in line with government guidance”.

Asked if local lockdowns were possible, Mr Johnson said: “There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it.

“Obviously there’s surge testing, there’s surge tracing.

“If we have to do other things, then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out.

“We have always been clear we would be led by the data.

“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 we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.”

‘No measures ruled out’

Asked if masks and social distancing would be scrapped, Mr Johnson said more announcements would be made before the end of the month.

He added: “I think we have to wait a little bit longer to see how the data is looking but I am cautiously optimistic about that and provided this Indian variant doesn’t take off in the way some people fear, I think certainly things could get back much, much closer to normality.”

Downing Street also said officials would not “rule anything out” when asked if the government was considering surge vaccinations to accompany surge testing in areas with spikes of new variants.

Meeting called with Sage

The prime minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We want to consider all options.

“The meeting is happening with SAGE today and should they come out with any further updates on this variant originating in India and the epidemiology in the UK then we will consider it.”

Earlier, Professor Steven Riley, from Imperial College London, said whether the road map for England continued on its planned trajectory was “a government decision” but suggested the UK was currently in a good place.

He told Times Radio: “I think there’s two key things that have got to be kind of evaluated – if infections go up, how quickly will they go up? But then after that, are they linked to the hospitalisations?

“The top-line government policy is driven by protecting the NHS, so even if infection starts to go up, we then need to assess whether that’s bringing a lot of new cases into hospitals, and there’s certainly no sign of that at the moment.”

Additional reporting by PA.

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