COVID-19: Indian variant fears could delay June reopening

  • Downing Street could delay the final stage of the UK’s lockdown reopening plans amid growing spread of Indian COVID variant
  • UK government refuses to rule out the reintroduction of local lockdowns and tiers
  • Study shows that 99% of people that received the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine developed COVID-19 antibodies
  • Britain ramps up vaccination calls and targets over-35s

The route out of lockdown reached a landmark moment on May 17th, as millions of people across the UK were able to enjoy new freedoms following months of coronavirus restrictions and stay-at-home orders.

However, plans to unlock the UK economy are now at risk as the Indian variant appears to be spreading across the nation like wildfire.

According to official statistics, more than 1,000 people have tested positive for the Indian variant in the past four days – an increase of 77% since last Thursday.

The Indian mutation has already become the “dominant” version of COVID-19 in Blackburn and Bolton, where cases have doubled over the last week.

Growing variant fears have also caused UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shelve a planned announcement on dropping social distancing rules, revealed a Times newspaper.

Labour went on the attack, condemning the spike in the infection rate as a “catastrophic misstep” on the Conservatives part. 

Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, told UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock that Britain could have avoided this emerging crisis. 

Mr Ashworth said: “Our borders have been about as secure as a sieve. The delay in adding India to the ‘red list‘ surely now stands as a catastrophic misstep.”

Mr Hancock defended the government’s border policy and insisted that Britain had banned travel to India before other countries such as Canada and Germany.

Nonetheless, the rapidly spreading Indian strain has forced ministers to reconsider plans to fully reopen the economy on June 21st or introduce local lockdowns as a contingency measure.

UK government discussing contingency plans for reopening the economy

UK Environment Secretary George Eustice said areas in Britain with high infection rates were under “intensive government surveillance” and that they could not rule out reintroducing local lockdowns.

According to a Times report, officials have discussed plans to implement temporary measures modelled on last year’s Tier 4 restrictions, which would see areas with a high prevalence of the Indian variant subjected to stay-at-home orders and shop closures. 

Businesses affected by the new restrictions would also receive grants of up to GBP 18K, with payments adjusted based on the duration of the local lockdown.

However, The Times reports that grants will only be made available to worst-affected sectors such as nightclubs, many of which have been closed since the first national lockdown in March 2020.

That said, a Downing Street spokesperson said the UK government wants to see as much data as possible before deciding on whether to delay COVID lockdown easing or introduce other measures such as local lockdowns.

But with cases of the Indian variant rocketing, several scientists and medical professionals believe the virulent strain could overtake the Kent mutation and become the “dominant variant” in the UK over the coming days.

Discussions about whether to introduce local lockdowns come alongside data showing that Britain recorded 1,979 new daily COVID-19 cases on Monday and five deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test – the lowest levels since last summer.

The data also revealed that a total of 56,992,075 COVID vaccines had been administered in the UK, of which 36.7 million people have received at least one coronavirus jab and more than 20.2 million adults are fully vaccinated against the disease.

Separate figures from the NHS show that there are now less than 1,000 people in hospital with COVID-19, with the average daily death toll at nine.

However, with scientists warning that the fast-spreading B.1.617.2 variant could lead to a deadly new wave of the virus, ministers are ramping up the COVID vaccine rollout in the UK.

Britain ramps up vaccine rollout amid variant fears

On Monday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that there were now more than 2,300 active cases of the Indian variant in Britain, with 86 local authorities reporting five or more COVID cases.

While he stressed that there is currently no evidence showing that the Indian strain is more lethal or that vaccines are ineffective against the virus, he urged people to come forward and get their COVID jabs.

The Health Secretary went on to say that invitations to book coronavirus vaccine appointments will be extended to 37-year-olds on Tuesday in efforts to prevent an exponential surge in cases and overwhelm the NHS.

Over 35-year-olds are expected to receive text messages inviting them to book appointments at vaccination centres from Wednesday.

Meanwhile, appointments for second vaccine doses will be brought forward from 12 weeks to 8 weeks for those in the top nine priority groups, on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Ministers also announced plans to accelerate surge testing in areas with a high prevalence of the Indian strain.

What are the symptoms of the Indian variant?

Researchers are hurrying to determine the level of threat the Indian strain poses to public health, including how it differs from other mutations and whether it is resistant to current vaccines.

While there is much yet to be discovered, recent evidence suggests that it is more transmissible and could be slightly better at evading immunity than other strains circulating Britain.

Currently, the symptoms associated with the variant are similar to the original strain:

  • A high temperature – you should be hot to the touch
  • Persistent or continuous cough
  • A loss or change of taste or smell

Although the impact on vaccine efficacy is still being determined, a Downing Street spokesman said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to bring second doses forward for the most vulnerable to offer maximum protection and prevent overwhelming the NHS.

Speaking yesterday, the Prime Minister said: “Everyone should continue to proceed with caution as they enjoy their new freedoms” to avoid another surge in COVID cases.

However, Dr Zubaida Haque of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said that Mr Johnson should have delayed the May 17th reopening.

Mr Haque explained that the UK government has completely ignored test four of Mr Johnson’s roadmap, which notes that “if new variants pose any further risk, we should stall reopening.”

He also stressed the importance of vaccinating younger people, ramping up contact tracing and providing additional financial support for those who may need to self-isolate.

Will COVID vaccines be offered to younger age groups?

Downing Street said that it had deployed thousands of additional coronavirus vaccines to areas reporting a sharp increase in cases due to new variants identified initially in India.

MPs have also stepped up calls for people to book coronavirus vaccination appointments as soon as they are offered a jab and opened vaccine centres across the country to speed up the rollout.

However, Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi has explained that Britons are struggling to get their COVID jabs due to transportation and access issues.

She urged Mr Johnson to open vaccination centres in more impoverished communities to support working-class families and prevent huge queues from forming at other vaccine centres.

In a letter addressed to the Guardian, Ms Qureshi wrote: “It is not a case of vaccine hesitancy. People want the vaccine; we now need to provide sites in more easily accessible locations.”

In other news, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that Britain had secured enough Pfizer vaccines to vaccinate all children over the age of 12. 

He made it clear that the British government would be “very, very careful and sensitive” about whether to offer vaccines to children but insisted that early trial results showed that it was safe. 

In a House of Commons speech, the UK Health Secretary said that ministers would decide whether to roll out the vaccine to children aged between 12 and 18 within the next two months.

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