The variant of Covid first detected in India is expected to become the dominant strain in the UK within days, experts said, with government and health teams struggling to contain the cases, which have increased by more than 75% since Thursday.
With the rapid spread of the more transmissible B.1.617.2 variant threatening to reverse moves to facilitate the lockdown, the government has faced intense pressure to more fully explain the delay in adding India to the lockdown. the so-called red list of countries.
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, joined the criticism on Monday, calling the UK’s border policy a “joke”.
Johnson is now set to delay plans to announce an end to social distancing rules, postponing the conclusion of an expected review by the end of the month, casting significant doubt on the broader easing plan of most foreclosure rules on June 21.
Speaking on the day that domestic hospitality and other venues were allowed to reopen, Matt Hancock told MPs 2,323 cases of the variant known as B.1.617.2 had been confirmed, up from 1,313 on Thursday , including 483 in the outbreaks in Bolton. and Blackburn. There are now 86 local authorities with five or more confirmed cases, he said.
Describing a “race between the virus and the vaccine,” the Health Secretary rejected calls from Labor to consider vaccinating all adults in the worst-affected areas, saying surge tests were the best cure.
Hancock said an additional 35,000 tests had been distributed or collected in Bolton and Blackburn, with pressure to target those eligible for vaccinations, with 6,200 jabs performed in Bolton alone this weekend.
But new data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Covid-19 genomic surveillance, which excludes recent traveler samples and surge testing, showed the speed and extent of the integration of the variant.
According to an analysis of the data by Professor Christina Pagel, Director of the Clinical Operations Research Unit at University College London and a member of the Independent Expert Panel Sage, the variant was detected in almost 30% of the Covid samples collected. in England in the week ending May 8.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the Indian variant appeared poised to supplant the one first detected in Kent, which in turn was significantly more transmissible than earlier forms of coronavirus.
“There is no evidence that the recent rapid increase in B.1.617.2 variant cases shows signs of slowing down,” he said. “This variant will exceed [the Kent variant] and become the dominant variant in the UK in the coming days, if not already. ”
This has prompted new questions about why India was not added to the Red List of countries earlier, where all arrivals except UK nationals are banned, and where those who come should be put. quarantined in a hotel for 10 days.
Responding to the Commons, Labor shadow secretary for health Jonathan Ashworth said the UK’s borders “are as secure as a sieve”.
Yvette Cooper, Labor chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, said people would feel “understandably angry” if the reopening of the lockdown was threatened due to border decisions, citing statistics showing that at the start of April, arrivals from India tested positive for Covid at 50 times the UK rate.
Separately, in a Twitter thread ahead of his appearance before the Commons health and science committees on May 26, Cummings lambasted the UK’s response to Covid, citing as an example “our border policy joke”.
In a sentiment likely to raise a few eyebrows given his own long-haul rides last spring, Cummings also argued that the locks only work with “serious application.”
Hancock defended the government’s approach to the Commons, saying it added India to the red list on April 23, six days before variant B.1.617.2 was investigated and two weeks before it is described as a concern.
However, another variant first discovered in India and closely related to the variant of concern, called B.1.617.1, was named under investigation on April 1, weeks before travel from India was released. limits.
Ministers could face a major backlash if the release of the B.1.617.2 variant derails the planned reopening in June, or even forces some of Monday’s changes to be reversed.
A government source said more time was needed to collect data on the effect of the variant, but stressed that this does not necessarily mean the June 21 date will slip. “We thought we would be able to give notice well in advance, now we’ll need a little more time,” the source said.
The social distancing review was expected to announce the end of the 1-meter rule for reception venues, which has forced some to drastically reduce capacity, as well as the end of fines for not wearing masks.
As a sign that the UK government could pave the way for its roadmap to shift, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “The variant first identified in India could seriously disrupt this progress and could make it harder to switch to step 4.
“Our decision will be based on the most recent data, and we want to allow as much time as possible to assess this, so we will make plans as soon as the data allows.”
Some Conservative MPs have expressed serious concerns about a reversal of the reopening.
“When will this government take a little risk and allow people to come back to life?” Huw Merriman, the Tory MP who chairs the transport committee, told Hancock in the House of Commons.
Giles Watling, who represents the seaside resort of Clacton in Essex, said local businesses had reported a boom in bookings as people planned to vacation in the UK this summer and the idea of further restrictions was very worrying.
“I understand ministers need to act, but we didn’t really have a summer season last year, and it would be a real kick in the teeth if we couldn’t open up like we had planned.