Covid cases in most areas of the UK are at their lowest levels since August last year, but the spread of Indian coronavirus variant is pushing infections back up.
The Prime Minister has said there is "increasing concern" about the variant, which is feared to be 50 per cent more transmissible, and warned the emergence of further new coronavirus "pose a potentially lethal danger".
New guidance has now been issued for eight areas considered to be hotspots of the variant in England with people advised to minimise travel in and out of the area and avoid meeting up indoors.
Where is the Indian variant dominant?
The Indian variant was detected in 151 local authorities in the week ending 15 May, marking an 18 per cent weekly increase, according to figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
The variant was detected for the first time in 37 of these local authorities, while 28 areas which previously identified a case of the variant had none in the most recent data available.
In 37 local authority areas, the Indian variant was detected for the first time in the most recent week for which data is available.
The genome data, where only around half of all cases are sequenced for variants, showed that more than 100 local authorities had fewer than five cases of the Indian variant.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) revealed that a total of 3,424 cases had been confirmed in the UK up to 19 May, with a majority detected only in the week prior.
Downing Street has now issued new local guidance to eight areas in England considered to be hotspots for the Indian variant, while surge testing and vaccinations have been rolled out in some of these areas to help minimise further spread.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it would instead be issuing advice to people living in Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside after ministers were accused of bringing in rules on socialising and travelling “by stealth”.
The advice, which the government said is not new regulations, aims to highlight “additional precautions” residents can take, such as meeting others outdoors rather than indoors, staying two metres apart from people not in the same household, and minimising travel in and out of the area.
The Indian variant has also been identified in Newcastle and parts of Scotland, including Glasgow and Moray.
What is the India variant?
The India Covid variant, officially known as B.1.617, was first detected in India in October. It has been designated a “variant of concern” by PHE as it is thought to be at least as transmissible as the variant detected in Kent last year, known as B117, which is now dominant in the UK.
A Public Health England (PHE) study found that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines work against the Indian variant after two doses, with both jabs proving to be almost as effective against symptomatic disease from the strain identified in India as they are against the Kent one after two doses.
With more than 62 million vaccine doses already administered in the UK, the country is in a strong position to protect against emerging variants.
However, Professor James Naismith from the University of Oxford said not enough is known to say for sure whether the variant could frustrate the UK’s vaccination programme.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “The vaccines don’t 100 per cent prevent infection for people.
“What they do is, they almost 100 per cent prevent hospitalisation and serious illness.
“We don’t know enough to know yet whether the Indian strain will behave differently than that.
“So even the regular virus can infect people who have been vaccinated and sometimes you do get reinfection.”
Could the variant delay lockdown ending?
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned it is still “too early to say” if the lifting of lockdown in England will go ahead as planned on 21 June.
While Covid-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths are being “severed” thanks to the successful vaccine rollout and months of restrictions, it is not yet clear if it will be safe to ease rules completely.
The warning comes after Mr Hancock told MPs on Wednesday (26 May) that there were 3,180 new cases of coronavirus in the UK, which is the “highest since April 12”.
Despite the recent increase in cases, the Health Secretary insisted that the vaccines are working and said he “desperately” wants restrictions to be lifted on 21 June.
Symptoms to look for
The main symptoms of coronavirus to look for include:
- a high temperature – this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)
- a new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)
- a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – this means you've noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal
Most people with symptoms have at least one of these symptoms, although some do not experience any. As such, it is advised that everyone gets tested regularly to help prevent further spread of the virus.
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