Scientists have expressed fears the rising cases of the Indian Covid variant in the UK could derail plans to lift lockdown measures as planned.
Downing Street has issed new local guidance to eight areas in England considered to be hotspots for the Indian variant, including Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Beford, while surge testing and vaccinations have been rolled out in some of these areas to help minimise further spread.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament on earlier this month that the variant, officially known as B.1.617, is of “increasing concern” and warned the “lethal danger” posed by Covid variants could lead to a new wave of disease worse than that endured in January this year.
Could the end of lockdown be delayed?
The government has said it is “anxious” about the Indian variant of concern and is “ruling nothing out”, but England’s road map still looks on track, the Prime Minister has said.
Boris Johnson said earlier this month: “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it. 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.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that on Wednesday (26 May) there were 3,180 new cases of coronavirus, which is “the highest since April 12”, but stressed the vaccines are working in bringing cases down.
However, Mr Hancock said it was still “too early now to say, yet, whether we can take the full step four on June 21”, but added that he “desperately” wants to.
Appearing in the Commons on Thursday (27 May), he told MPs “this pandemic isn’t over yet”, adding: “Our vaccination programme has reached 73 per cent of the adult population, but that means that more than a quarter still haven’t been jabbed… 43 per cent of adults have had both jabs, but that means that more than half are yet to get the fullest possible protection that two jabs gives.
“Yesterday we saw 3,180 new cases of coronavirus, the highest since April 12, but thanks to the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed, the link from cases to hospitalisations and to deaths is being severed.”
He added that the government will make a formal assessment ahead of 14 June as to whether the final step in the lockdown roadmap in England can go ahead as planned on 21 June.
He said: “We will be both driven by the data, we will be advised on and guided by the science, and we will be fully transparent both with this House and with the public in those decisions.”
Are Covid variants a cause for concern?
Professor Stephen Griffin, from the University of Leeds, explained that the Covid vaccination programme can effectively reduce the risks posed by new coronavirus variants as there is no evidence of a current variant that can fully evade the effectiveness of vaccines.
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.
Speaking to NationalWorld, Prof Griffin said: “The virus varies all the time. The variants are not a massive problem.
“As a population you need as many vaccinated as you possibly can, and if you have a largely immune population it limits the risk.
“If you have had two vaccines you are by and large likely to be protected from variants at the moment.
“But you need to make sure your population is safely immune. It is not a problem at the moment as the vaccines do protect against variants.”
However, Prof Griffin added that lockdown restrictions are still hugely important in tackling new variants.
Social distancing measures are still needed alongside a successful vaccination programme in order to cut transmission, and drive case numbers down.
He added: “This problem will go away if you get the cases down. It is very simple.”
Will local lockdowns be put in place?
Despite new guidance being issued for eight Indian variant hotspots in England, the government has said that local lockdown measures are not being imposed.
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.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted that the communications around the local guidance “could have been clearer”, after no official announcement was more and local leaders were not made aware of any change.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Shapps said: “It’s important to say there are no new local lockdowns, no change in the law – the law is the same throughout England with regards to coronavirus.
“But I think it would also be churlish not to say that the communications could have been clearer and this was in essence simply guidance or advice just to remind people living in areas where the level happens to be quite a lot higher than the national average of the sensible things to do.”
A message from the editor:
Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going.