The government is acting “coldly” and “calmly” to tackle the variant of the coronavirus first discovered in India as social distancing measures are further relaxed on Monday, Health Minister Edward Argar said.
At a press conference on Friday, Boris Johnson said he would continue to allow gatherings inside six people or two households in England from next week, although the final step in lifting the restrictions in June could face “serious disruptions”.
His comments came amid warnings from scientists that the worrisome new variant first detected in India, B.1.617.2, could lead to a “significant” increase in infections and could be up to 50% more transmissible than the variant first detected in India. Kent.
“As Chris Whitty said yesterday, it’s possible [it could be more transmissible], but it could also be a lot less transferable, if that makes sense, ”Argar told BBC Breakfast on Saturday.
“We don’t yet know how much more transmissible it is. All the evidence so far suggests that there is no evidence of an increased severity of the disease or that it escapes the vaccine.
“So for now, based on the evidence, we’re doing the right thing, calmly, calmly continuing with Monday, but keeping everything under review. “
Argar added that people should take personal responsibility when deciding whether or not to hug loved ones, when they are allowed to do so.
“You have to take all the facts into consideration,” he said. “It’s a matter of personal responsibility, it’s about making good judgment.”
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty on Friday warned that a more transmissible B.1.617.2 variant would mean “a really significant surge” of infections, as he predicted the variant could become the most transmissible strain. more dominant across the UK.
On Saturday, Professor Anthony Harnden, vice-chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunization (JCVI), said coronavirus vaccines were “almost certainly less effective” at reducing transmission of the variant.
Harnden, who advises the government on vaccinations, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program: “Vaccines may be less effective against mild illnesses, but we don’t think they’re less effective against illnesses. serious. But in addition to being less effective against mild illnesses, they are almost certainly less effective against transmission. “
Argar said there had been a “slight increase” in the number of people presenting to hospital with the virus, mostly among unvaccinated people aged 35 to 65 in Bolton, where, alongside Blackburn and of Darwen, the military will be deployed to aid the mass testing efforts.
While cases of the B.1.617.2 variant have nearly tripled over the past week, targeted surge testing is taking place in specific areas across England, including in several boroughs of London, Sefton, Worcester , Lancashire and Nottingham. Harnden said there were still “a lot of unvaccinated people in risk groups in these areas,” saying today: “The concern is that these vulnerable unvaccinated people, those over the age of 50, will develop Covid from this more transmissible. [variant] and end up in the hospital.
People eligible for a vaccine in areas where the variant has been found in circulation are encouraged to be vaccinated.
Argar has also defended government border controls, as criticism of Johnson’s tactics to curb the importation of new variants from abroad intensifies. He said: “Our border controls to reduce the risk of importing a new variant of the disease are among the most difficult in the world.
“I think we have the right border controls in place to minimize, you can never completely eliminate, but to minimize the risk of not only this variant, but other variants in the future. “
Asked why Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the Red List before India, he said decisions were made “on the basis of the evidence, based on a number of factors” .
“There are a number of different factors, it’s not a binary thing,” Argar added.
Johnson told a Downing Street press conference on Friday that England would face “tough choices” if the variant turned out to be more transferable than the previous ones.
Minutes of a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting on Thursday showed scientists believe there is “a realistic possibility that it is up to 50% more transmissible.”
To protect against the variant, Johnson announced that clinically vulnerable people and people over 50 would be rushed to get their second doses of the vaccine.
Sage member Sir Mark Walport said the race between the spread of the coronavirus and the vaccination rollout had ‘intensified’, following the rise of the variant first found in India .
“Scientists are convinced that this new variant is up to 50% more transmissible than the previous B117 variant. So, if you will, the cutting edge that running the race has just been sharpened.