Easing of Covid-19 rules to go ahead in UK despite Indian variant concern

Indoor mixing and greater physical contact to be allowed in England on Monday

A public health digital board warns the public of a Covid-19 variant of concern affecting the community in Bolton, northwest England. Surge testing is being carried out in the area, as well as in Blackburn, Sefton and London. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty

A public health digital board warns the public of a Covid-19 variant of concern affecting the community in Bolton, northwest England. Surge testing is being carried out in the area, as well as in Blackburn, Sefton and London. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty

 

Ministers in the UK are pushing on with a major easing of restrictions on Monday despite concerns over the Indian variant of coronavirus, of which cases are rising in the UK.

Prime minister Boris Johnson was sticking by plans to allow mixing indoors and greater physical contact in England as scientists warned the strain could be 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variety.

Public Health England data showed a rise in cases of the Indian variant from 520 to 1,313 this week.

Health minister Edward Argar said on Saturday that the Government was acting “coolly” and “calmly” in carrying on with step three in the roadmap to ending lockdown restrictions.

However, the British Medical Association (BMA) said the move is a “real worry” while many are still awaiting vaccination.

Mr Johnson warned on Friday the variant could cause “serious disruption” to plans to ease the lockdown and may delay the planned ending of all legal restrictions on June 21st.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies concluded there is a “realistic possibility” the strain is 50 per cent more transmissible than the one that emerged in Kent. If the higher transmissibility is confirmed, the experts said moving to step three could “lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations” that is “similar to, or larger than, previous peaks”.

Mr Argar told BBC Breakfast: “All the evidence so far suggests there is no evidence of increased severity of illness or that it evades the vaccine.

“So, at the moment, on the basis of the evidence, we are doing the right thing, coolly, calmly continuing with Monday, but keeping everything under review.”

Monday’s easing will allow people to socialise indoors in homes, pubs and restaurants, and will permit physical contact between households for the first time in more than a year.

Mr Argar said people should take personal responsibility when deciding whether or not to hug loved ones, when allowed to do so.

“You have to take all the facts into consideration,” he said. “It’s about personal responsibility, it’s about making the right judgment call.”

‘Cautious approach’

The BMA’s public health medicine committee co-chairman Dr Richard Jarvis urged the public to take a “cautious approach” to social and physical contact.

“With key segments of the population still not vaccinated and clusters of variants, including the rapidly increasing Indian variant, becoming a growing concern, we must approach this next stage of easing lockdown with the utmost caution,” he said.

“It is a real worry that when further measures lift on May 17th, the majority of younger people, who are often highly socially mobile and could therefore be most at risk of a more infectious strain, are not yet vaccinated.”

To combat the variant’s spread, people aged over 50 and the clinically vulnerable will have their second doses of a Covid vaccine accelerated.

Surge testing is also under way in several places in England including areas of Bolton, Blackburn, Sefton and London.

Mr Argar was also forced to defend border restrictions, saying it is “impossible to completely, hermetically seal” the nation amid criticism of the delay in adding India to the travel red list.

India was not added to the travel red list requiring quarantine in a government-sanctioned hotel until April 23rd, despite having announced the move four days earlier. Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused the prime minister of a “reckless failure to protect our borders”.

Meanwhile, the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said vaccines are “almost certainly less effective” at reducing transmission of the Indian variant.

But Prof Anthony Harnden said it is not believed the strain evades the vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing severe disease.

He defended the approach of bringing forward second jabs rather than speeding up the rollout to younger people, saying targeting more vulnerable people with full immunity is a “better strategy”. – PA