The UK is in a race to tackle the spread of a coronavirus variant first identified in India through rapid vaccination, ministers declared on Wednesday, as they expressed increasing confidence that jabs were effective against all strains of the disease.
Fast growth in cases of the B.1.617.2 variant in several locations across England, including Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, has cast doubt on whether the government can stick to its plan to lift all coronavirus restrictions by June 21.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the number of cases of the variant in England had increased to 2,967, up 27 per cent since he outlined previous figures on Monday.
He told the House of Commons that Covid-19 vaccinations would be crucial in beating the spread of the variant in hotspots reporting the highest numbers of infections.
In the past week across Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, 26,094 jabs had been administered, said Hancock, adding “the race between the virus and the vaccine” had now narrowed.
As a result of the latest analysis about the B.1.617.2 variant, surge testing and vaccinations would now take place in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, and North Tyneside, he said. The Scottish government is also taking similar steps in Glasgow and Moray.
Hancock added: “What this means in practice is we’re putting in place more testing and more testing sites and on vaccinations we’re making more vaccinations available to everyone who’s eligible.”
Boris Johnson said there was “increasing confidence” the latest data suggested that vaccines were effective against all variants of the disease, including the B.1.617.2 strain.
He added this variant was “one of the issues that we must face” in the government’s decisions on further easing of Covid-19 restrictions.
Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said a “ranging shot” of data on the transmissibility of the B.1.617.2 variant would be available next week and would inform ministers’ decisions on whether to lift more restrictions.
He added the situation was a “straight race” between the “transmissibility of the variant” and the NHS, which was doing everything it could to “turbo boost” vaccine delivery.
The government’s scientific advisers have previously expressed concern that if the B.1.617.2 variant proved 50 per cent more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 strain that last year took hold in the UK, as some data have suggested, it would cause major disruption to the plans to end all restrictions in England by June 21.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said there was a “glimmer of hope” from initial data on the transmissibility of the B.1.617.2 variant.
“While this variant 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,” he told the BBC.
Ferguson added the level of transmissibility would be critical in deciding when restrictions could be eased. “It’s much easier to deal with 20 to 30 per cent than it would be 50 per cent or more,” he said, adding the government’s plans to lift all restrictions by June 21 were “very much in the balance”.
Meanwhile, Johnson insisted the UK had “one of the strongest border regimes” in the world, as Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of “confusing and contradictory” messaging over new international travel arrangements that took effect on Monday.
Under a so-called traffic light system that takes account of countries’ levels of coronavirus infection, Britons have been advised against travelling to countries on the government’s red list, and urged not to holiday in “amber” nations.
Johnson insisted the government’s guidance on travel was “clear”, saying the public should not be travelling to amber countries except for “extreme” reasons such as visiting ill family members.
In recent days, other ministers have suggested it is OK for Britons to go to amber nations to visit friends.
Starmer questioned why the government had given 170 countries amber status, given concerns about new variants.
“We know that new variants are the single biggest risk to unlocking, we know that the government doesn’t think people should travel to amber list countries . . . but the government has made it easier to do so,” he said. “The messaging is confused and contradictory.”