Britain is still on track to fully lift the lockdown on June 21 after ministers revealed growing confidence that the Indian variant is not as transmissible as first feared and that coronavirus vaccines are working against it.
While the number of cases of the new strain has quadrupled in the last fortnight, the number of people being hospitalised has remained ‘fairly flat’ compared to previous spikes.
In further encouraging news, Professor Jonathan Van- Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, said the death rate – now averaging eight a day – was at an ‘extremely low place’.
But speaking at the Downing Street briefing yesterday, Prof Van-Tam said the rate of transmissibility of the variant was the ‘million-dollar question’ but expressed cautious optimism that it was more likely to be 20-30 per cent higher than the Kent variant.
Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock said they were increasingly confident that the jabs were effective against all variants – including the new Indian strain.
The Times reports that the Prime Minister last night told the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs: ‘I know there are anxieties about new variants. But we can see nothing to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map.’
Mr Hancock said no decision on the final unlocking would be taken until June 14, ‘using all the information that we have up until then’.
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose work led to the first lockdown in March last year, yesterday said there was a ‘glimmer of hope’ that the Indian strain would prove to be less transmissible than the 50 per cent rate first feared.
It is believed the speed of transmission in parts of the north west was down to cases in large, multi-generational households in densely populated areas.
Britain has now recorded almost 3,000 cases of the Indian B.1.617.2. variant, up from 520 on May 5. Data shows the variant is now behind one in five of all infections and has become the dominant strain in 23 parts of England.
Hotspots in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, North Tyneside, Glasgow and Moray are being treated with surge testing and extra supplies of vaccine, similar to what has already happened in Bolton and Blackburn where the variant was first introduced.
Prof Ferguson said: ‘There’s a glimmer of hope from the recent data that while the virus does appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a lot.’
Mr Hancock last night pleaded with Britons to get both of their Covid jabs, reiterating earlier remarks from Boris Johnson that SAGE had ‘increasing confidence’ in the ability of vaccines to protect against the variant.
He revealed that the ‘majority’ of people in hospital with the mutant strain in hotspot Bolton were not vaccinated and that of those who had been jabbed, 90 per cent had not been given both doses.
It comes as NHS managers are reportedly drawing up plans for all over-18s to be offered the vaccine within the next five weeks.
According to The Telegraph, the rollout could reach people in their early 20s in the first two weeks of June, with all over-30s offered a first dose by the end of May.
The government has shown continued confidence in its ability to meet its target to offer first doses to all adults by the end of July.
From today, the health service will offer jabs to those aged 34 and over.
Urging people to come forward for their appointments, Mr Hancock said: ‘This is on all of us, we are masters of our own fate. We are seeing the vast majority of cases, both of the existing variant and of the B.1.617.2 variant, amongst younger groups and unvaccinated people.
He added: ‘On the one hand hand that is actually a good sign as it implies the vaccine is working effectively, but obviously we don’t want to see a huge increase in the number of cases everywhere.’
Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, said the rate of transmissibility of the Indian variant was the ‘million-dollar question’ as he expressed cautious optimism it could be lower than first estimated
Boris Johnson (right) and Health Secretary Matt Hancock (left) said they were increasingly confident that the jabs were effective against all variants – including the new Indian strain
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose work led to the first lockdown in March last year, yesterday said there was a ‘glimmer of hope’ that the Indian strain would prove to be less transmissible than the 50 per cent rate first feared
A chart showing the proportion of people in England who have been given either one or two vaccine doses was presented at tonight’s Downing Street press conference. Matt Hancock hailed it as evidence of how many Brits were coming forward for their jab but urged people to help get coverage closer to 100 per cent to protect against the Indian variant
Another chart revealed that as of Tuesday, 37million people in the UK – or 70 per cent of adults – had received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine
The above graph is based on Sanger Institute data on cases identified in the community. It shows that while the Kent variant (B.1.1.7) remains dominant in the country, infections with the Indian variant (B.1.617.2) are rising rapidly. In the week to April 24 it made up barely three per cent of all infections spotted, but by May 8 it was behind 27 per cent
Health chiefs gear up for autumn Covid vaccine booster drive as No10 launches trial testing SEVEN different jabs as top-up shots
Covid booster vaccines are to be trialled in the UK as health chiefs gear up to offer all over-50s a third dose this autumn.
Southampton University scientists will recruit thousands of fully-vaccinated Britons to the study, which will test seven Covid jabs as top-ups.
They will record any side-effects analyse the antibody levels of volunteers to check whether the extra dose offered any extra protection.
No10’s top scientists are set to be fed the results of the world-first trial to determine how booster shots should be dished out later in the year.
Experts running the clinical trials said every jab should spark added immunity — but that some may lead to more side-effects than others.
Matt Hancock announced the study at a Downing Street press conference tonight. The Health Secretary said he was ‘delighted’ and that the tests will ‘shape the plans for our booster programme later this year’.
Mr Hancock added: ‘We will do everything we can to future-proof this country from pandemics.’
Coronavirus vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax, Johnson and Johnson, Valneva, CureVac will be used in the study, alongside a control jab.
His comments were echoed by deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who described Britain’s situation as a ‘straight race’ between the vaccination programme and the new strain.
He added: ‘The NHS is doing everything it can to turbo-boost that, and that is the challenge that’s ahead of us in the next two to three to four weeks, to make sure that we outrun the virus through really vigorous pull-through on vaccine delivery.’
Britain has now recorded almost 3,000 cases of the Indian B.1.617.2. variant, up from 520 on May 5. Data shows the variant is now behind one in five of all infections and has become the dominant strain in 23 parts of England.
Latest figures show 70 per cent of British adults — 36.9million people — have now had their first dose, with 20m fully inoculated.
Mr Hancock said extra surge testing was being deployed in Indian variant hotspots to boost the vaccine programme and revealed the Government was monitoring waste water in 70 per cent of the country to detect early signs of the strain spreading in more areas.
Meanwhile, the Health Secretary announced Covid booster vaccines are to be trialled in the UK as health chiefs gear up to offer all over-50s a third dose this autumn.
Southampton University scientists will recruit thousands of fully-vaccinated Britons to the study, which will test seven Covid vaccines as part of the world’s first clinical trial into booster shots.
Mr Hancock said he was ‘delighted’ and that the tests will ‘shape the plans for our booster programme later this year’, adding: ‘We will do everything we can to future-proof this country from pandemics.’
Professor Van-Tam advised people in Covid hotspots to ‘think carefully’ about using the new freedoms they have this week.
When asked at a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday if he would advise people in areas such as Bolton with high coronavirus rates against taking advantage of new freedoms, he said: ‘I would advise the residents in those areas to think very carefully about the freedoms they have, weigh up the risks and be very cautious.
‘It is possible to do something outside, better to do it outside. If it is possible to do something with smaller numbers, with people you know rather than multiple new contacts, it’s better to do that. Take it steady.
‘The Government has given people freedoms to start to make these judgments for themselves and I understand that we can’t live for years and years on end with rules, people will have to learn to manage these risks from Covid for themselves because this is not going to go away in the short term, medium term and probably the long term.’
Mr Hancock told the press conference: ‘Overall hospitalisations and deaths remain very low, meaning we have been able to carefully take away more restrictions this week as we’ve taken step three of the road map.
‘But we must proceed with vigilance and with everyone taking personal responsibility.
‘We’ve always known that one of the things that has the potential to knock us off track would be a new variant.
‘That’s why we made the presence of a new variant that could do that one of our four tests when we set out the road map, which is the tests we must pass for going down each step of the road map.
HOLIDAYING IN AMBER AND RED COUNTRIES IS LIKE SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, SAYS JVT
Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam tonight compared the risk of holidaying in countries with higher levels of coronavirus to jumping into shark-infested ponds.
Speaking at the Downing Street press conference, he said: ‘I think we can be very clear that when or if a vaccine fails to give you the maximum amount of protection that you were hoping for, what it says on the tin as it were, then the things that are going to go first are the vaccine’s ability to protect you from infection and to stop you from transmitting it to others.
‘The things that will go last are the vaccine’s ability to stop you getting into hospital from severe disease and dying – they’re the bits we think are generally the strongest even with a weaker vaccine.
‘So, that’s a tricky nuance in terms of the argument that just because you’ve had vaccines it’s entirely safe to go abroad.
‘Everything is relative and the other bit of relativity is whether you’re, when you go abroad, jumping into a pond with one shark in it or jumping into a pond with 100 sharks in it, it changes the likelihood that you’re going to get bitten.
‘The disease levels in these different countries that are potential destinations are all very different, and some of them still have quite levels of disease activity compared to the UK.’
‘The early evidence suggests that the B1617.2 new variant, first discovered in India, passes on more easily from person to person than the B11.7 variant that was first discovered in Kent.
‘But as the Prime Minister said at lunch time, we have increasing confidence that the vaccines are effective against it.
‘That means that our strategy is the right one – to carefully replace restrictions on freedom with the protection from the vaccine.’
Mr Hancock revealed that the case rate in Indian variant hotspot Bolton was 283 per 100,000, after doubling in a week. He said 25 people were currently in Bolton’s hospitals with the strain, of which the ‘majority’ were unvaccinated. Among those that had been jabbed, 90 per cent had not been given both. Mr Hancock said: ‘This shows the importance of getting vaccinated – not once, but twice.’
Despite growing fears about the variant putting England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ in jeopardy, the Prime Minister one of his top scientific advisers today claimed the jabs work well against the strain and it may be less infectious than first feared.
The Prime Minister said there was ‘increasing confidence’ jabs are highly effective against all variants, including B.1.617.2. His comments are bolstered by the fact the emergence of the strain has not yet led to an uptick in hospital admissions or deaths.
There were just three Covid deaths announced across the UK today, the fifth day in a row there has been single-digit fatalities. Another 2,696 infections were recorded in the past 24 hours, up 18 per cent on the number a week ago.
The latest figures came as the Government under fresh criticism for taking too long to ban travel from India, as Labour today claimed the border had been ‘like a sieve’ throughout the pandemic.
Meanwhile, SAGE epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson said analysis over the past few days indicated the strain was less transmissible than initially feared, providing a ‘glimmer of hope’ for the country’s lockdown-easing plans.
The scientist – nicknamed ‘Professor Lockdown’ for his frightening modelling of the pandemic during last spring – said whether or not the country could come out of restrictions next month was ‘in the balance’ and it might not be clear for weeks how much of a threat the Indian variant poses.
The comments came as the PM faces a revolt from his own MPs at the prospect of the unlocking timetable being pushed back. One Cabinet minister told MailOnline there would be ‘serious trouble’ from the Tory benches if he does not stick to the date for lifting almost all restrictions.
And Bolton’s Tory council leader — one of 23 areas in England where the mutant strain is now dominant — raised alarm about ‘civil unrest’ in the town if it is placed under a local lockdown.
No10 has admitted a review of social distancing rules that had been expected this month could be delayed as they wrestle with the response to the latest variant. Mr Hancock will hold a 5pm press conference to discuss the Indian variant and the vaccine roll-out.
Health services across the UK have administered 57.8million vaccines, including 36.9million people with their first dose – or 70.2 per cent of the adult population. Meanwhile, almost two-fifths (39.6 per cent) have had both doses.
Hailing the inoculation drive hitting its latest landmark, Mr Hancock told the Commons earlier: ‘With more than 70 per cent of adults now having had a first dose, and almost two-fifths already double-vaccinated, we have much to celebrate.
‘Vaccination underpins our road map which means we can now have pints in pubs and hugs in homes.
‘Yet, as I updated the House on Monday, the race between the virus and the vaccine has got a whole lot closer. I can tell the House that 2,967 cases of Covid with the B1617.2 variant have now been identified.’
He added: ‘Vaccines are turning the tide against this pandemic and I’m incredibly proud the UK has one of the highest uptake rates in the world, with 90 per cent of people saying that they have had or will have the jab.
‘Strong evidence shows the vaccines protect you and your loved ones from serious illness, and they also reduce transmission, which is why we’ve introduced additional surge measures in the areas with rising cases of the variant first identified in India.’
He added: ‘Thank you to everybody who has come forward so far – we can beat this virus together if we all play our part and get the jab as soon as we’re eligible.’
Despite the threat of the Indian variant to the UK only being made public last week, reports today suggest the Government was warned about the danger it posed to the UK four weeks ago.
While the Indian variant is spreading rapidly in pockets of the country, 60 per cent of local authorities in England have yet to record a case (shown in grey). But it is likely the variant has spread even further than the map suggests because the data is 10 days out of date. Experts have said they expect it to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant in the coming weeks and months
Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections
Holiday chaos as EU approves Covid passports, five million Brits book holidays to Europe and Ryanair offers £5 flights to amber list nations
The EU today took a huge step towards allowing fully vaccinated Britons to visit restriction-free this summer as it was revealed five million people have already booked European breaks despite Boris Johnson declaring: ‘You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday’.
Brussels has approved a plan that its 27 member states can adopt a vaccine passport system that will allow tourists to visit without needing to test or quarantine as the Prime Minister urged UK holidaymakers not to travel until he updates his own ‘green list’.
The EU’s ambassadors signed off on the bloc’s travel plan this morning, with the heads of state expected to agree it as an official policy by the end of the week.
But with only Portugal on the UK’s ‘green list’, the PM has said Britons should not be heading to Europe, even if the EU’s vaccine passport scheme would allow it.
He told PMQs: ‘If you travel to an amber list country for any emergency, any extreme reason that you have to, when you come back, you not only have to pay for all the tests but you have to self-isolate for 10 days – we will invigilate, we are invigilating it, and people who fail to obey the quarantine can face fines of up to £10,000′.
Ryanair today sought to cash in on the boom, offering £5 flights to ‘amber list’ destinations such as Barcelona, Dublin, Corfu, Berlin and dozens more cities and resorts across Europe through June, when the EU is expected to open up to tourists.
MailOnline can reveal that Tui, the UK’s biggest holiday company, has seen a surge in sales for ‘amber’ destinations in July and August. Most customers are booking breaks at resorts in southern Spain, the Balearics and the Canaries or on Greek islands such as Crete, Kos, and Corfu.
Critics have pointed out that the UK’s traffic light system is also adding to the confusion, because an amber light can mean stop or go, with people left ‘baffled’ by the PM’s decision to legalise holidays from May 17 only to urge them to stay at home.
And Skills Minister Gillian Keegan has further fuelled travel chaos by stressing holidays to ‘amber list’ countries are not illegal and warnings from Boris Johnson are only ‘guidance’, insisting the government was trusting the public to be ‘sensible’.
In a farrago of indecision, last night health minister Lord Bethell claimed travel anywhere abroad was ‘dangerous’ and foreign trips were ‘not for this year’, hours after Environment Secretary George Eustice suggested trips to ‘amber’ countries were acceptable if people wanted to see friends and family.
Virginia Messina, Senior Vice President of the World Travel & Tourism Council, told MailOnline: ‘Disagreements over whether or not you can travel to an ‘amber country’ are baffling consumers and leaving the travel and tourism sector in disarray’.
Millions of Britons have already taken advantage of cheaper prices and booked to travel abroad to ‘amber list’ destinations this summer, with the majority planning to head to Spain, France, Greece and Italy, according to The Independent, despite facing ten days of quarantine and multiple tests.
Many are gambling on the destinations turning ‘green’ by the time they are due to go.
At that time, the strain was already decimating hospitals in India’s major cities and yet thousands of travellers were still flying into Britain from the country every week.
Ministers met for crisis talks two weeks later to thrash out plans to deal with the strain, with some advisors warning against going ahead with stage three of the roadmap, Sky News reports.
The Indian variant has already spread to at least four in 10 areas of England and accounts for one in five new infections since being imported to the UK in late March.
Mr Johnson tried to strike a positive tone at PMQs this afternoon, saying he had looked at the data again this morning and there was ‘increasing confidence’ that vaccines work against ‘all variants, including the Indian variant’.
Asked by Labour leader Keir Starmer whether mutant strains was the biggest risk for the loosening, Mr Johnson said: ‘I certainly think that is one of the issues that we must face.’
He added: ‘We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the House we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.’
Asked about what data the PM has seen to make his ‘increasing confidence’ comment, a No10 spokesperson said: ‘We have regular data that is published daily that tracks through right down to a very granular level on things like case rates.
‘That is the information that the Prime Minister is seeing.
‘Currently in that data we are not seeing any sharp increases or significant areas of concern.
‘Clearly it is important to stress that we want to give more time to get more data in so we can make decisions on our approach on the next step.’
They added data includes hospitalisation rates, case rates, positivity rates ‘and a number of studies published here and around the world which continue to show high levels of efficacy against variants’.
Pressed during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for his ‘hunch’ about whether the next stage of the roadmap would go ahead on schedule, Prof Ferguson said: ‘I think that is being actively considered.
‘It is very much in the balance. The data collected in the next two-three weeks will determine that.’
He said it was not yet clear how much more transmissible the Indian variant is, but added: ‘Certainly, it is much easier to deal with 20 per cent, even 30 per cent (more transmissibility) than it would be 50 per cent or more.’
During a round of interviews this morning, Professor Ferguson said data had suggested the current jabs were less effective at stopping people from catching the mutant virus.
He claimed the Government’s scientists were ‘slightly concerned’ this could give the surging strain more opportunity to spread to vulnerable and unvaccinated groups.
But the University College London epidemiologist insisted there was a ‘good deal of confidence’ among SAGE that the vaccines will protect against severe disease and death, which would be crucial in protecting the NHS in the event of a third wave.
Asked about the Indian variant’s effect on vaccines, Professor Ferguson told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: ‘It is something which is being studied very carefully.
‘There’s a good deal of confidence, and the data is being gathered, that the vaccines will protect against severe disease.
‘The effect of the Indian variant on the vaccines will be fairly marginal in terms of the protection against severe disease, so the vaccines protect individuals.
‘The thing we’re slightly concerned about is whether there’s an impact on the ability of vaccines to prevent infection or mild disease and, therefore, prevent transmission in the community.
‘There are some hints, and it’s not vaccine-specific at the moment, in the data of reduced vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission, but we really have to wait as more data is gathered to be definitive about that.
‘But of course it’s a concern because, if we don’t have the same action of vaccine at blocking transmission, it’s another way for the virus to amplify itself in the community.’
Even though the vaccines seem likely to prevent severe illness, there are fears that the new variant could spill into the 30million Britons who have still to get their jab.
There are also a very small number of people for whom the vaccines will not work, because the person is very frail or has a weakened immune system.
Professor Ferguson revealed that, since SAGE’s warning about the Indian variant last week, there was new data which suggested the strain could be less infectious than first feared.
He said the data was still uncertain because scientists are trying to disentangle whether the virus is extremely transmissible or whether there are behavioral and social factors at play.
Professor Ferguson added: ‘To explain to people why this is difficult [to work out exactly how infectious it is]… It’s because of how it was introduced into the country, it was introduced from overseas, principally into people with Indian ethnicity – who are at a higher chance of living in multi-generational households and often in quite deprived areas in high density housing.
‘So we’re trying to work out whether the rapid growth we’ve seen in Bolton is going to be typical of what we can expect elsewhere.
The growing red sections on graphs represent Indian variant cases surging in local authorities where it could be taking off. In these places it can already be seen edging out the Kent strain (orange) and scientists fear this suggests it is more infectious and could take over as the number one type of the virus in the UK. Note: Some areas, such as Stevenage, Broxbourne and Oadby are recording very few cases of the virus so changes may not constitute a trend
The Indian variant also appears to be edging out the Kent strain in various parts of London, where it already accounts for half of cases or more, but low numbers of infections mean this may an effect caused by small clusters of cases
A Warwick University model of a more infectious variant after lockdown is completely lifted on June 21 suggests that any more than a 30 per cent increase in transmissibility compared to the Kent variant could lead to an August peak of daily hospital admissions that is higher than either the first or second wave. In a worst-case scenario with a variant 50 per cent more transmissible, hospital admissions could surge to 10,000 per day or even double that (Thick lines indicate the central estimate while the thin lines are possible upper limits known as confidence intervals)
Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day
The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July – up to around 45,000 – compared to the current 845
The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible – which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January
Chris Whitty FINALLY takes a break! Chief medic is on first holiday in two years (but don’t worry, it’s in the UK and he’s still checking up on the Indian variant)
Chris Whitty is on holiday for the first time in two years – but is still tracking the Indian variant of coronavirus.
The chief medical officer is on leave this week after overseeing the frantic efforts to tackle the pandemic, MailOnline understands.
However, he has opted to stay in the UK rather than take advantage of the lifting of the ban on non-essential travel.
Prof Whitty is also said to be in ‘daily contact’ with his office and still keeping careful tabs on developments with the Indian strain. ‘He is having a break as much as he can,’ one source said.
The chief medical officer’s deputies are on duty, with Jonathan Van-Tam set to appear at a Downing Street press conference alongside Health Secretary Matt Hancock and new Test & Trace chief Jenny Harries this evening.
A Cabinet minister told MailOnline: ‘It is his first break in two years.
‘He has earned a lot of respect for the way he has handled things.
‘It is not easy because politicians are used to getting shouted at, but people like Whitty arrive in a position because their careers take them there.’
Prof Whitty has become one of the best known figures in government over the course of the crisis, fronting adverts and regularly fielding questions at press briefings with the PM and science chief Sir Patrick Vallance.
Polls have suggested the 55-year-old – a practising consultant at University College London Hospitals (UCLH) and the Hospital for Tropical Diseases – is among the most trusted public figures.
In February Prof Whitty was widely praised for his calm response when a video emerged of a teenager berating him in the street.
He self-isolated with coronavirus symptoms in March last year, at around the same time Mr Johnson tested positive.
Prof Whitty is due to give a lecture on health trends this evening, but it has been pre-recorded.
The government is wrestling with how to respond to the latest mutant strain, with Boris Johnson considering whether the next stage of unlocking on June 21 can go ahead.
‘There’s a little bit of what I would say is a glimmer of hope, from the recent data, that while this virus does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data, so the curves are flattening a little.
‘But it will take more time for us to be definitive about that.’
He said even if the strain was found to be 20 per cent more infectious than the Kent one, this would be ‘much easier to deal with’ than if the figure was 50 per cent.
Ministers think clearer data on the Indian variant will come in next week, in the form of hospital pressures. It can take up to a week for infected people to fall ill enough to need to be admitted to the NHS for treatment.
Given that the virus has only began to spread rapidly over the past fortnight, hospital figures remain low.
Experts hope the vaccines have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations or death but can’t be sure until they see real-world statistics from hotspots such as Bolton and Blackburn.
Whitehall insiders told The Times that sewage is also being monitored to find other flare-ups of the variant across the country.
If the spread of the variant does translate into increased pressure on the NHS, then England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ plans could be disrupted.
Professor Ferguson said it could be two or three weeks before data provided firm conclusions about the variant and what impact it will have on the lockdown easing roadmap.
And fellow Government adviser Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, said ‘we’ll get much more evidence’ over the next fortnight.
This is despite Boris Johnson suggesting yesterday that the picture would become clearer in ‘days’.
It comes as Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth today called for the Government to publish its internal review of its handling of the Covid crisis.
He said it would help the UK ‘prepare’ for the next stage of the pandemic and ensure better scrutiny of No10’s response to the Indian variant.
Labour will table a motion today to require the Government to publish the internal review. Mr Ashworth told Times Radio: ‘We need to learn lessons and prepare for the next stage.
A separate report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the pandemic had ‘laid bare existing fault lines within society and has exacerbated inequalities’.
Epidemiologist Dr Tildesley suggested that people should ‘ration’ hugs while there is still uncertainty around the variant first identified in India.
The member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), which advises the Government, told BBC Breakfast: ‘We’ve had a relaxation of restrictions on Monday, which is really great news for people’s mental health and wellbeing and for businesses and so forth because we’ve had really tough restrictions for a long period of time.
‘But we still need to remember that there are some measures in place.
‘We’ve been able to relax controls but we still need to be a little bit cautious.
‘For example with hugging, again great for people’s wellbeing, but I suspect what we really need to do is maybe ration that a little — I’m not going to stop my children from hugging their grandparents for example — but I think we need to be a little bit careful.’
He added that people should not think that the epidemic is over, adding: ‘Hopefully we can get back to normality sooner rather than later.
‘But we need to ease into that so we need to be a little bit cautious over the coming weeks just to make sure that we don’t get a resurgence of cases.’
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was warned there could be ‘unrest’ in Bolton if the Government brings in local lockdowns to contain the Indian variant.
David Greenhalgh, Conservative leader at Bolton Council, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’ve been there before and they don’t work – not in a dense conurbation like Greater Manchester.
‘This happened before, the spread increased because people travelled 50 yards across the county boundary to access hospitality that they can’t in their own area.’
Asked if he had told Mr Hancock there would be civil unrest, he said: ‘I do think there is a danger of unrest.
‘There is a great deal of resentment. Bolton was… we were disproportionately affected really since July last year.
‘Even when our rates were coming down, we still remained in lockdown when other areas’ rates were higher than ours, so there was a build up of resentment.
‘The people of Bolton have a great spirit and they come together when times are difficult.
‘But this would be a very, very difficult situation to manage I believe – if we went into a lockdown that we have personal experience of as a town, which did not work.’
Mr Greenhalgh said there was no sign yet that cases were coming under control in Bolton, adding that ‘our cases are still rising’.
He continued: ‘I think that was, to be honest, expected. We are putting all the measures in that we can at the moment.
‘We have community spread, there’s no doubt about that, and we’re holding back a variant that would appear – although the evidence is still being gathered – to be a little bit more transmissible, easily transmissible.
‘The majority of our cases are in very much our younger age groups – primary school, secondary school and in their 20s.
‘We still haven’t got an increase in hospitalisation and severe illness, which is hugely welcome, those figures still remain low.
‘We’re doing everything we can. The Government has sent in surge vaccinations, surge testing… We’re doing everything we can, but I think the next two weeks we will still see our cases rising.’
Figures for the seven days to May 14 show that Bolton continues to have the highest rate of new Covid cases per 100,000 people in England.
It had 867 new cases in the seven days – the equivalent of 301.5 cases per 100,000 people. This is up from 150.2 in the seven days to May 7.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIAN VARIANTS?
Real name: B.1.617 — now divided into B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3
When and where was it discovered?
The variant was first reported by the Indian government in February 2021 but the first cases appear to date back to October 2020.
Its presence in the UK was first announced by Public Health England on April 15. There have since been at least 520 cases spotted in genetic lab testing.
What mutations does it have?
It has at least 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China. The two main ones are named E484Q and L452R, although the most common version in Britain (.2) does not have E484Q.
Scientists suspect L425R can help it to transmit faster and E484Q helps it get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
There is also a mutation called T478K but researchers don’t yet know what it does.
Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?
Research is ongoing but British scientists currently believe it spreads at least as fast as the Kent variant and potentially faster, but it is unlikely to slip past vaccine immunity.
SAGE advisers said in a meeting last week: ‘Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 [Kent] variant.’
Dr Susan Hopkins, a boss at Public Health England, said: ‘We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this is a more transmissible variant.’
Expectations are that the current Covid vaccines will still protect people against the Indian variants.
Early research by the Gupta Lab at Cambridge University found there was a small reduction in vaccine effectiveness on the original Indian variant, but it found the jabs worked better against it than they did on the South African strain. The team have not yet tested the .2 strain, which is the most common in the UK.
A paper published by SAGE advisers recently suggested two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is good enough to protect against all known variants, and it is likely the others will provide very strong defence against severe illness, even if there is a risk of reinfection.
Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines.
How deadly is it?
Professor Peacock said: ‘There isn’t any evidence that this causes more severe disease. There’s just not enough data at the moment.’
Scientists say it is unlikely that the variant will be significantly more dangerous than the Kent strain.
This is because there is no evolutionary benefit to Covid becoming more deadly. The virus’s sole goal is to spread as much as it can, so it needs people to be alive and mix with others for as long as possible to achieve this.
Although there have been claims that the Kent variant is more deadly than the virus it replaced – the Government claimed it was around 30 per cent – there is still no conclusive evidence to show any one version of Covid is worse than another.
Is the variant affecting children and young adults more seriously?
Doctors in India claim there has been a sudden spike in Covid hospital admissions among people under 45, who have traditionally been less vulnerable to the disease.
There have been anecdotal reports from medics that young people make up two third of new patients in Delhi. In Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.
But this could be completely circumstantial – older people are more likely to shield themselves or to have been vaccinated – and there is still no proof younger people are more badly affected by the new strain.
The risk of children getting ill with Covid is still almost non-existent.
Why is it a ‘variant of concern’ and should we be worried?
Public Health England listed the variant as ‘of concern’ because cases are growing rapidly and it appears to be equally infectious – or potentially even more – than other strains in Britain.
Last time a faster-spreading variant was discovered it caused chaos because the outbreak exploded and hospitals came close to breaking point in January, with almost 50,000 people dying in the second wave.
But there is currently no reason to be alarmed. Scientists believe our current vaccines will still work against the variant, preventing people from getting seriously ill or dying in huge numbers.
If it spreads faster than Kent it could make it harder to contain and make the third wave bigger, increasing the number of hospital admissions and deaths among people who don’t get vaccinated or for whom vaccines don’t work, but the jabs should take the edge off for the majority of people.
A vaccine that can make vaccinated people very sick en masse would be a real crisis for Britain and could ’cause even greater suffering than we endured in January’, Boris Johnson warned on Thursday – but there are not yet any signs the Indian variant will be the one to do this.
How many cases have been detected in the UK?
According to Matt Hancock, there have been about 2,300 cases of the most worrying version of the Indian variant, B.1.617.2, which is quadruple the amount reported a fortnight ago.
It now accounts for one in five of all new infections.
The cases are spread across the country, with the majority in two areas – the North West, mainly in Bolton, Blackburn, and Sefton, in Merseyside. But it is also spreading in London.
Surge testing is expected to be deployed where there is evidence of community transmission and has already begun in the North West.
Latest positive test data suggests the Indian variant is dominant – accounting for more than half of all positive tests – in 23 parts of England already.
Analysis of samples by the Wellcome Sanger Institute shows that by the week ending May 8, the variant accounted for eight in 10 cases in hotspots Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, Sefton and Bedford, as well as in Chelmsford in Essex and Croydon in London.
It is less dominant in Nottingham, West Lancashire, Stevenage, Oadby and Wigston, South Northamptonshire, Broxbourne, Hillingdon, Brent, Camden, Hounslow, Greenwich, Bromley, Dartford, Sevenoaks, Canterbury, Rushmoor and Hart.
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