The summer reopening plan is a “work in progress” and should be delayed if the Indian variant causes more severe illness in the UK, immunology professor Luke O’Neill has said.
The Trinity College Dublin scientist believes the Government's plan is "sensible" because public health data from England has shown the vaccines sufficiently protect against severe disease from the more transmissible Indian variant, but that vigilance would still be required.
“The Government plan has to be seen as a work in progress. We just have to keep a close eye on things,” said Prof O’Neill on how the Indian variant would affect people in the UK.
“Our warning would be that if hospitalisations go up in the UK in the next two, three or four weeks and that then begins to translate into severe disease, then we are in a different position.”
In that scenario, the Government may be forced to “roll back” the planned reopening, he said.
Covid-19 infections in the UK are at their highest for six weeks with up to 75 per cent of cases caused by the "B1617" mutation, of which there have been 97 cases recorded in Ireland.
Prof O’Neill said that despite the cases in the UK, the “trend is good” and that younger people who may be infected are less vulnerable to severe disease caused by the Indian variant.
Paul Moynagh, professor of immunology at Maynooth University, said: "I think the reopening plan is a good idea. All in all, I think you need to strike a balance."
“We are probably at a point in time where the time is right in terms of the phased reopening.”
Prof Moynagh said this reopening was different to the pre-Christmas reopening that led to a third wave of infection. He said half the population had received one vaccine dose and the most vulnerable were protected.
“Even if numbers increased in terms of that translating into hospitalisations, ICU admissions, deaths, the relative impact is likely to be much less than we saw in December,” he said.
He suggested the Government could speed up the vaccine rollout by giving only single doses to the hundreds of thousands of people who have recovered from Covid-19 infections.
Dr Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, sounded a note of caution, saying it would be "wise" to defer further reopening until the autumn to protect against the B1617 variant.
“This variant is really bad news. If anyone thinks it won’t appear in numbers in Ireland if there is a huge amount of travel this summer, they are probably wrong,” said Dr Scally, a member of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group which proposes a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy.
The Indian variant had put England’s plan to end pandemic restrictions on June 21st in doubt and it would be known over the next fortnight how badly the variant affects the UK, he said.
“I think we are in a really difficult position. The UK, despite its vaccination programme, is teetering on the edge of something. We are not quite sure how bad it will be,” he said.