Health secretary Matt Hancock has urged the country to remain “humble in the face of this virus” as latest figures show cases of the Indian variant of Covid-19 spiking in parts of the UK.
Speaking in the House of Commons on 17 May, Hancock said that while the UK can still move into the third stage of its path out of lockdown, we “must remain vigilant” given the incidence of the new strain of the virus.
“The vaccination programme can give us confidence, but we must be alert to new variants that can jeopardise the advances we have made,” he said.
There’s now 2,323 confirmed cases of B1617.2 in the UK, he said, 483 of which have been discovered in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwin, where it is now the dominant strain.
Cases have doubled again in the last week, and are rising in all age groups.
The variant, which goes by the scientific names B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3, was first detected in India in December. Cases doubled in the UK from 520 to 1,313 over the week of 10 May.
Hancock doubled down on calls to ensure people turn up for vaccination appointments.
“Vaccines save lives, they protect you, they protect your loved ones, and they will help us all get out of this pandemic,” Hancock said.
There are now 86 local authorities where five or more cases of the Indian variant have been confirmed, he added.
A variant of concern
On 16 April, the World Health Organisation said the Indian variant of the virus was “concerning”.
Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist at the international agency and technical lead for Covid-19, said that “there is a similarity in these mutations which confer increased transmissibility and some of these mutations also result in reduced neutralisation, which may have an impact on our countermeasures including the vaccines”.
On 11 May, the organisation later classified the Indian strain as a variant of concern, pointing to preliminary studies that it spreads more easily.
The UK had already raised a red flag on 7 May. Public Health England has said that it is “actively monitoring the impact of this variant and its severity” and is encouraging people to continue to “work from home where you can”.
How is the UK managing its outbreak?
In a 14 May press conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK’s vaccine rollout would be stepped up in a bid to combat the variant by accelerating the administration of second doses to the over 50s. The gap between the first and second doses will be reduced from 12 to eight weeks.
“Since I spoke to you last Monday, we have seen further clusters of the variant first observed in India,” the prime minister said. “At this stage there are some important unknowns. We believe this variant is more transmissible than the previous one, but we don’t know by how much.”
Johnson also warned that if the variant was “significantly” more contagious than the country will have to “face some hard choices”, hinting at a slow down of the four-stage roadmap out of lockdown.
The final phase is supposed to start no earlier than 21 June, when the government hopes to remove “all limits on social contact”.
“I do not believe on the present evidence we need to delay the roadmap,” the prime minister added, but he acknowledged that the prevalence of the Indian strain “could make it more difficult to move to step 4 in June”.
According to the latest government figures, there were 1,926 new Covid-19 cases across the country on 16 May, an increase of 8.6% over the previous week. There were four deaths within 28 days of a positive test that same day.
More than 36.5 million people have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and 20.1 million are fully vaccinated.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in an 11 May briefing note that as of 10 May 9.7% of the population in India had received at least one dose of the vaccine and 2.4% were fully vaccinated.
What would delaying Step Four mean?
According to James Smith, developed markets economist at ING, delaying the final step of the roadmap would not “necessarily make a massive difference to the near-term gross domestic product profile” of the UK.
“The more interesting question though is what difference the noise surrounding the new variant makes to confidence,” said Smith. “What’s become increasingly clear from just about every data source over recent weeks is that consumers and businesses are much more optimistic than they were last summer.”
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