Boris Johnson has warned that the fourth leg of England’s June roadmap is in jeopardy, as scientists have said the worrying Indian variant may be 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant.
The Prime Minister said at a Downing Street briefing that if the Indian variant turns out to be much more heritable than other variants, the country could face “tough choices”.
This comes as the minutes released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) of their meeting on Thursday said, “It is highly likely that this (Indian) variant is more transmissible than (Kent) and it is like. 50% more transmissible ”.
Experts have warned that the number of cases would rise even faster if restrictions were lifted, suggesting that a spike in infection can be expected after Monday’s easing, and certainly at stage four of the roadmap in June, when all legal limits on social contacts are due. finish.
Sage said: “If this variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally over (Kent), sensitivity analyzes in roadmap modeling in England indicate that it is likely that progress with the third stage alone (without other local, regional or national changes in measures) would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalizations (similar to or greater than previous peaks).
“Progressing with steps three and four on the earliest dates could lead to a much bigger peak. “
During the Downing Street briefing, the Prime Minister said: ‘I don’t think we need, based on the current evidence, to delay our roadmap and we will continue with our plan to take the third step in England from Monday.
“But I have to say with you that this new variant could seriously disrupt our progress and make it more difficult to move to the fourth stage in June. “
Later, he added: “That doesn’t mean that there is no way we can go ahead with the fourth stage.
“I don’t think that’s the case at all. But that now means that there is a risk of disruption and delay, and delay in that ambition, and we have to be completely realistic about it.
However, the PM said there was no evidence that an increase in cases of the Indian variant was translating into unmanageable pressures on the NHS in terms of hospital admissions, which for the time being remain. “Globally stable”.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) shows an increase in cases of the worrying Indian variant from 520 to 1,313 this week in the UK, with the agency saying infections “are on the rise in the community.”
England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said at the briefing that the variant was “quite widespread in a number of parts of England and even elsewhere in parts of the four nations of the UK” , and could overtake the Kent strain to become dominant in the UK.
He warned that if the variant turns out to be much more transmissible than the other variants, the UK could see “a really significant surge” in Covid-19 cases, adding: “This is a really critical issue to which we don’t have the answer yet. . “
Professor Whitty said the UK may see a delay in the impact of the new variant or the vaccines are keeping it at bay.
He said, “It could be that it initially circulates at a younger age, because it has always happened before.
“Young people are mixing more and the initial release is at younger ages and then it increases in the age range – so maybe it’s just a delay because of that.
“Or maybe it’s a delay because the vaccine actually provides a firewall, a barrier to reducing transmission through the ages, to those who are most vulnerable, clearly the second of these is. far most preferable. “
In a bid to mitigate the effects of the spike in cases, Mr Johnson announced that people over 50 and those who are clinically vulnerable will have their second doses of a Covid vaccine sped up.
Mr Johnson said the second doses – which provide people with maximum protection against Covid-19 – will be postponed from the scheduled 12-week interval to eight weeks.
He said: “I think we should trust our vaccines to protect the public while monitoring the situation as it evolves very closely, as the race between our vaccination program and the virus may be. -being about to get a lot tighter and she’s more important than ever. , therefore, that people get protection from a second dose.
“So, following the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, we will speed up the remaining second doses for the over 50s and clinically vulnerable people across the country, so those doses come only eight. weeks after the first dose. “
Professor Whitty said the continued roll-out of first doses for younger age groups should not be delayed by accelerating second doses to over 50s and vulnerable people.
The prime minister said the military will be deployed to areas in the northwest that have suffered some of the highest rates of the Indian variant, and will distribute tests to aid surge testing efforts.
Surge tests are underway in several locations in England, including areas of Bolton, Blackburn, Sefton and London.
Mr Johnson also urged people to “think very carefully” about the risk to their loved ones, “especially if they have not received that second dose or if it has not yet had time to take full effect.”
He added, “I want us to trust people to be responsible and do the right thing. This is the way to live with this virus while protecting the NHS and restoring our freedoms.
“It’s very clear now that we’re going to have to live with this new variant of the virus for a while, so let’s work together and use caution and common sense.”
The Prime Minister said UK surveillance data is now so advanced that he will see well in advance whether the NHS is likely to come under unsustainable pressure.
“It gives us the confidence to keep moving forward for now,” he said.
However, he urged people to “think twice” before going to areas with a higher incidence of the Indian variant and staying with their family and friends in those areas.
“We want the people of these regions to recognize that there is an additional risk, an additional threat of disruption to progress caused by this new variant and to simply exercise their discretion and judgment in a way that I am sure will ‘they have been throughout this pandemic, ”he said.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused Mr Johnson of a “reckless failure to protect our borders”.
He added: “Just a few weeks ago, we urged Matt Hancock to point this out as a variant of concern and to respond with speed and determination.”
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said “vital” financial support is being offered if the fourth stage of the roadmap is disrupted by a surge in the Indian variant of the coronavirus.
She said: “The Prime Minister’s statement introduced an element of doubt around the removal of restrictions on June 21.
“The situation will clearly be closely watched, but if the roadmap timeline slips, it is essential that financial supports are provided and that corporate tariffs be postponed to October.”