The Indian Covid variant has already overtaken the Kent strain in 23 English local authorities and has spread to 40 per cent of the country, positive test data revealed today as Boris Johnson desperately tried to play down fears that the June 21 ‘freedom day’ could be ditched because of the strain.
Analysis of samples from people infected with Covid has revealed 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.
Data suggests it is also dominant – accounting for more than half of all positive tests – in Nottingham, West Lancashire, Stevenage, Oadby and Wigston, South Northamptonshire, Broxbourne, Hillingdon, Brent, Camden, Hounslow, Greenwich, Bromley, Dartford, Sevenoaks, Canterbury, Rushmoor and Hart.
Despite the worrying development, the Prime Minister stressed that the roadmap out of lockdown is currently unchanged with the government sifting through emerging data about the fast-spreading strain.
But he appeared to shift his language slightly by saying there is not yet ‘conclusive’ evidence that the roadmap will need to be altered and said things would be clearer in a ‘few days’.
‘We are looking at the epidemiology the whole time as it comes in and, at the moment, partly because we have built up such a wall of defences with the vaccination programme, I don’t see anything conclusive at the moment to say that we need to deviate from the road map,’ he said.
‘But we’ve got to be cautious and we are keeping everything under very close observation. We’ll know a lot more in a few days’ time.’
The Department of Health today counted another 2,412 positive tests and seven deaths, with fatalities falling 65 per cent from last Tuesday and cases down 2.5 per cent. Another 106,733 people got first vaccine doses yesterday along with 259,049 second doses, meaning more than 36.8million Britons have had at least one jab and 20.5million are fully vaccinated.
Figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute revealed the Indian variant had been spotted in 127 English local authorities – or 40 per cent – in the two weeks ending May 8, the most recent data, after the total number doubled in a week. Nationally, there have been 2,323 cases of the variant – four times the 520 ten days ago – and the strain now makes up at least one in five of all new infections.
Surge testing began today in Nuneaton in Warwickshire and Bedford – where the variant cases surged 20-fold during April – to try and weed out clusters of infections caused by the new strain.
Cabinet ministers met today to try to thrash out a strategy to curb the new variant, with emergency plans that could see local restrictions used to combat hotspots while the rest of the country relaxes.
In an echo of the tiers system brought in last summer, people in the worst-hit areas could be told to stay at home and restaurants and shops forced to close – with stricken businesses handed more grants to keep them afloat.
Mr Johnson today tried to dampen concerns that vaccine hesitancy could prevent the next round of easings going ahead, pointing out that levels of uptake in the UK were very high by international standards. On a visit to a vaccine centre in London, he urged people to ‘get your jab’ when invited by the health service.
But Manchester’s mayor and the hospitality industry reacted with anger at the idea, insisting it had not worked last time and would cripple thousands of businesses.
There are also growing doubts about whether lockdown will be lifted across England on June 21. Just a week ago Mr Johnson was holding out the prospect of a broad lifting of legal constraints and social distancing, but it now appears that a review of the rules is unlikely to report this month.
Labour and local leaders have been demanding vaccines are rushed through for younger people in areas where the strain is taking hold – something that has so far been rejected.
One government source told ITV News that some of the loosening that took effect this week – including ‘Rule of Six’ socialising indoors and in bars and restaurants – might have to be rolled back.
‘It is clear some social distancing will have to be retained, not everything we’ve set out for 21 June is likely to happen,’ they said. But it is also possible some of the easing we’ve done today will have to be reversed.’
Any backtracking would be a huge blow to Mr Johnson after he vowed a ‘cautious but irreversible’ exit from lockdown.
Tory ministers and MPs have been warning the PM against changing course, complaining that curbs must not be extended to protect people who are refusing vaccines – which are believed to be effective against the Indian variant.
One Cabinet minister said missing the June 21 milestone could become Mr Johnson’s ‘Theresa May moment’ – a reference to her failed Brexit deadline.