Cases of the B.1.617.2 Covid variant that originated in India have increased by 28% since Monday, Matt Hancock has said, as he announced that surge testing would now be expanded to six more areas.
The health secretary told MPs the number of cases of the India variant uncovered in the UK had now risen to 2,967. That was up by 28% in just two days, from the 2,323 confirmed cases identified on Monday.
Hancock said the government’s biosecurity surveillance systems, which include monitoring sewage and analysing travel data, had identified several other areas of potential concern.
As a result of that analysis, he said surge testing and vaccinations would now be accelerated in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester and North Tyneside. Hancock said this would not mean opening up vaccines to the under-35s, who are not yet eligible, but accelerating delivery to thosealready entitled to be vaccinated.
The increasing prevalence of the variant has raised questions about whether the government should have acted earlier in placing India on the red list of countries from which travel is largely banned – a decision that was not made until 23 April.
The prime minister’s spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday that direct flights from India continued to arrive in the UK. He insisted that was so that UK citizens could return safely, and stressed that they would be subject to the strict hotel quarantine regime on arrival.
Hancock said the government’s approach had been, “surging vaccines and testing,” in the affected areas, hailing the fact that across Blackburn with Darwen and Bolton, the NHS had delivered 26,094 jabs over the past week, as well as 75,000 tests.
The vaccine surge has been controversial, with local health leaders pressing ahead with vaccinating as many over-18s as they can, despite official advice to stick closely to the guidelines from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
The prime minister has conceded that the rapid spread of the variant could mean the government’s final reopening plans, due to take effect on 21 June, could be delayed – though he struck an upbeat note on Wednesday, saying there was “increasing confidence” that vaccines were effective against B.1.617.2.
Speaking on the health day of the Queen’s speech debate, Hancock said the latest step in the government’s roadmap, which came into effect on Monday, meant the public could now enjoy “pints in pubs and hugs in homes”.
But he said the emergence of the latest variant of concern meant that “the race between the virus and the vaccine has got a whole lot closer”.