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LOCKDOWN easing has been threatened by a new Covid variant from India spreading rapidly in the UK.
Some parts are more affected than others, leaving millions of Brits with questions about what its emergence means.
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A new variant of the coronavirus (pictured) is causing concern in the UKCredit: Alamy
The good news is, there is confidence the vaccines will still prevent severe disease caused by the strain.
Cases are in relatively small numbers, but it’s the rapid growth that is of concern.
This puts the June 21 step of the lockdown roadmap in danger, due to concerns it will spread rapidly among the unvaccinated younger generations.
Where are cases highest?
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on May 19 Britain has now recorded almost 3,000 cases of the variant – four times the 520 on May 5.
Slightly older data from Public Health England says there were 1,313 cases in the UK to May 5.
The true numbers are likely higher because there is a lag period with detecting cases.
In England, infections are spread across the country, but there are hotspots which are now receiving surge testing.
The Indian variant has been found in 40 per cent of local authorities in England, and has become dominant in 23.
Bolton, Sefton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford have been labelled as areas of concern.
The variant is also dominant in several London boroughs – accounting for more than half of all positive test results in Hillingdon, Brent, Camden, Hounslow and Greenwich.
The data up to May 8 comes from the genomics centre the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which does not include cases related to travel or surge testing.
Where cases of the Indian variant are more dominant than the Kent version. Data to April 24, Wellcome Sanger Institute
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Radio 4 the Indian variant “clearly has been out-competing” the Kent variant in a number of areas around the UK.
In Scotland, it’s feared B.1.617.2 has caused a spike in coronavirus infections in Glasgow.
First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said officials “decided to hold back” on relaxing some lockdown restrictions due to concerns.
What are the symptoms?
There is no evidence that symptoms of B.1.617.2 are any different to the original ones, including a new, persistent cough, high temperature and loss of taste and smell.
Scientists also have no evidence at this point it cases more severe disease.
People who have received one or two doses of a vaccine have been warned they may show very little or zero symptoms as the jab appears to make infection more mild.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) shows cases of B.1.617.2 – one of three Indian variants – have reached 1,313 up to May 5
Who is most affected?
Cases are predominantly in younger people, public health officials say.
Those under the age of 34 are still waiting to be invited for their first dose.
Professor Christina Pagel, Clinical Operational Research Unit (CORU) at University College London (UCL), said: “Cases in most places are concentrated in school age children and young adults who haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated yet.
“It’s now spreading through the community far beyond its original travel cases.”
Experts say it was already expected that easing of restrictions would cause a manageable surge in cases in youngsters, with some spillage into unvaccinated older people.
But this is without accounting for the super infectious Indian variant.
Adam Briggs, a senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said on Twitter: “This is related to deprivation, multiple occupancy & multigen housing, and job insecurity – and also overlaps with differential vaccination uptake.”
Another expert has said “deprived, ethnic, urban communities may suffer disproportionately” from the Indian variant.
Uptake of the jab has been lowest among those of ethnic minority, and the coronavirus spreads faster in poorer and more crowded areas.
Mr Hancock has said the “vast majority” of people who had been hospitalised with Covid in areas with high Indian variant rates had not taken up the offer of a vaccine.
Why is the Indian variant a concern?
Sage – the scientists that advise Government – believe the Indian variant could be up to 50 per cent more easily spread than the strain from Kent.
The Kent variant put England back into a third national lockdown because it spread so much faster than the original strain from Wuhan, China.
Therefore, the Indian variant threatens freedoms, even though the UK has a successful vaccination programme.
It could infect those who are unvaccinated – currently a third of the population – or vulnerable people who have not been able to get the jab or for whom the jab does not work for.
But Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said it was likely to be only around 25 per cent more transmissible, meaning the NHS should be able to cope with the predicted surge in cases.
Will vaccines work against it?
The Health Secretary and the Prime Minister have said there is a “high degree of confidence” that the jab does work against the new variant.
A new study found the AstraZeneca vaccine is 97 per cent effective at dealing with the Indian variant.
Officials in Whitehall who have seen the limited data available are said to be optimistic about combating the variant, an insider revealed.
The source said: “There’s confidence with the early data”, adding they were “optimistic” about the initial findings.
Experts believe the vaccines should work based on looking at the variant’s mutations – it does not have some of the features that allow it to escape immunity.
However, scientists admit they do not know everything about its mutations yet and there is a “critical need” to find out more.
Prof Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said it wasn’t likely the Indian variant will weaken vaccine efficacy as much as the South African one.
There is general confidence that vaccines should work against the Indian variant. Pictured: James Forster from Hexham receives his jab, May 13Credit: Getty
Does it threaten the lockdown easing?
Boris Johnson has warned that step four of England’s road map on June is in jeopardy.
But he went ahead with lifting restrictions in England on May 17, allowing mixing indoors at pubs and restaurants.
The Prime Minister said on May 20 there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a deviation from the road map, considering vaccines appear to work against it.
Later, his spokesperson said ministers would want to see more information before making decisions on the next steps.
It came after some scientists said unlocking should be delayed given the prevalence of the Indian variant.
New variants are one of the four crucial pieces of information to decide whether to progress with unlocking, and some say they have ignored the Indian variant.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, said: “I can’t possibly imagine anything more concerning than a variant that we don’t know anything about in terms of vaccine efficacy and transmissibility that’s increased…
“If this is not a point of concern and a point of reconsidering easing restrictions, I don’t know what would be.”
Will local lockdowns be used?
Local lockdowns have been used before, and haven’t been ruled out in the future.
The PM said last week: “There may be things that we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said “we will take nothing off the table” when asked if local lockdowns are being considered.
While the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Government “will not hesitate to take further action if necessary”.
Damaging local lockdowns are only expected to be used if evidence suggests the variant can escape immunity from vaccines.
There are concerns local lockdowns will be used in places like Bolton, where surge testing is taking placeCredit: © Phil Taylor
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said he would not welcome local lockdowns to combat the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant.
He has urged the Government to prioritise vaccinating people over the age of 16 in the Bolton area while boosting self-isolation support.
What is being done to slow the spread?
Now that the Indian variant is considered one of concern, surge testing is being used to find more cases.
Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, North Tyneside, Glasgow and Moray are the latest locations to start a testing blitz on top of Bolton and Blackburn.
Meanwhile, the gap between first and second jabs will be cut down to eight weeks from the original twelve.
This is to ensure the most vulnerable have the fullest protection as soon as possible to help avoid hospitalisations.
The PM said: “We will accelerate remaining second doses, especially for the clinically vulnerable, right across the country, to just eight weeks after the first date.
“And if you are in this group the NHS, will be in touch with you. We will also prioritise first jabs for anyone eligible who has not yet come forward.”
People in the most affected areas are being encouraged to get their jabs urgently if they are eligible, with new vaccination hubs being set up.
What are the other Indian variants?
There are in fact three variants that are from India that emerged in the UK around mid-April.
These are B.1.617, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3.
The first and third variants are only listed as “under investigation”, rather than “of concern” like B.1.617.2.
Although they have been shown to have “escape mutations”, they have not grown in cases very quickly.