Boris Johnson was under increasing pressure on Saturday to reconsider the easing of Covid rules on Monday in England due to the threat posed by the Indian variant. His own advisers and independent health experts have raised concerns that this will lead to an increase in hospital admissions, especially among young adults.
From Monday, people will be able to gather in groups of up to 30 people outdoors, while six people or two households will be allowed to meet indoors. Pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers inside. Indoor entertainment such as museums, cinemas and children’s play areas can also open as well as theaters, concert halls, conference centers and sports stadiums.
Overnight stays will be authorized. Weddings, receptions and other ceremonies can take place between groups of up to 30 people. An unlimited number of people may attend the funeral.
But there are fears that the new Indian variant will trigger a third wave, just as the ‘big bang’ relaxation approaches. Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government task force on new and emerging viruses (Nervtag), said the eases would increase the number of people infected with the Indian variant and unvaccinated young adults would be most at risk.
“Indoor mixing will almost certainly increase the transmission of the B.1.617.2 variant, but at this point no one can be sure how much,” he said.
Hayward added that many people would end up in hospital if, as feared, the variant was found to be 40% more transmissible than previous variants, most notably the Kent variant, which resulted in the second fatal wave during the winter. Modeling by the government’s own committee of scientific advisers Sage has already indicated that the increase in the transmissibility of the new variant could reach 50%.
“A 20% increase in transmissibility is not a big deal; [but] a 40% increase would be a huge problem and could lead to a sharp increase in hospitalizations. A sharp increase in hospitalizations would likely impact routine health care services and the backlog, ”Hayward warned.
Meanwhile, Professor Kit Yates, a member of the Sage Independent Scientific Expert Panel, told the Observer that Johnson should delay Monday’s unlock for two weeks to allow more people to get their shots. Going forward, Yates said the prime minister would violate one of the government’s four key criteria – that of risk assessment not being changed by a new variant – which he had previously insisted on guiding all decisions on when and whether to relax restrictions.
“At this point, the precautionary principle should come into effect,” Yates said. “The more people we can immunize, the safer we become. Even a few weeks at this point could make a huge difference to this seemingly more transmissible variant. A break would also save us time to learn more about the properties of the variant, which would allow us to better plan the sequel. “
He added: “The rapid increases in B.1.617.2 and the waves of hospitalizations predicted by Sage’s modeling mean that the risk has fundamentally changed and the fourth test is not satisfied. The data suggesting a reassessment of the roadmap is there. “
Downing Street has insisted that the easing go as planned. But Professor Martin McKee, another member of Independent Sage, described easing the lockdown as a real risk: “The prime minister will make his own decision,” he said. “The scientific advice he receives is clear. Opening Monday is taking a big risk and we know we have failed the fourth of its tests to follow the planned roadmap, ”he said.
Emphasizing the dangers to young adults, McKee added, “While the individual risk for a young person of serious illness is low, if very large numbers are infected, the absolute number of becoming seriously ill could be high.” A third wave of infection would also leave more people suffering from the debilitating effects of the long Covid, which around 1.1 million Britons already have, McKee added.
Labor on Saturday stepped up attacks on the government for failing to respond quickly enough to calls for surge vaccinations in new Covid ‘hot spots’, including Bolton and Blackburn.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “As health officials on the ground in Bolton and Blackburn advocate for a wave of immunizations, ministers believe ministers are pushing back those calls, especially when Sage’s record appears to support a broader vaccination. It is urgent that the spread of this variant be contained. We know from the Kent mutation how widespread a variant can become without action. “
He also criticized the government for not having acted sooner to impose border controls. “The tragedy is that if Boris Johnson had put in place strong border controls, we could have avoided this. Instead, our borders were like a sieve that threatened to push us back when we came this far.
But a government spokesperson said: “We have some of the toughest border measures in the world. We took precautionary measures to ban travel from India on April 23, six days before this variant was investigated and two weeks before it was deemed to be of concern. Since then, we have accelerated our vaccination program and put in place stronger local support to stop transmission. Before India was put on the red list in April, anyone coming to the UK had to be tested negative and quarantined for 10 days. “
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, said: “I think this will lead to a surge in infections and we are now entering the third wave.”
While the evidence to postpone Monday’s relaxation is not yet there, “we may look back in three weeks and think Stage 3 was misguided, although we couldn’t.”