Experts suggest delaying full reopening in England as Indian variant spreads

Scientists advising government warn of ‘exponential growth in the number of new cases’

A woman writes a message on a heart painted on the National Covid Memorial Wall, at the embankment on the south side of the River Thames in London last week. Photograph: Getty Images

A woman writes a message on a heart painted on the National Covid Memorial Wall, at the embankment on the south side of the River Thames in London last week. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Two scientists advising the British government have warned against lifting all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England on June 21st, as fears grow over the continued spread of the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there had been an “exponential growth in the number of new cases” sparked by the new variant and urged the government to delay the June unlocking by “a few weeks”.

Speaking in a personal capacity, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “All waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so . . . what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave.”

With up to three-quarters of all new cases now involving the B.1.617.2 variant, Prof Gupta argued that more data was needed before lifting further restrictions. Under the government’s road map, all legal restrictions on social contact are to be removed from June 21st.

“I think that people are not saying we should abandon the June 21 date altogether, but just to delay it by a few weeks while we gather more intelligence and we can look at the trajectory in a clearer way,” he said. “If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay, so I think that’s the key thing.”

In recent weeks other members of Nervtag have also voiced concern at the spread of the new variant.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth urged ministers on Monday to “learn from earlier mistakes”, adding that the single biggest threat remained ministerial “incompetence”.

“Weak, slow decisions on border policy let this variant in, continued lack of sufficient self-isolation support and a stand-off with local public health directors over vaccination policy failed to contain it,” he said.

French restrictions

As of Monday, 3,383 new infections were reported across the country – a slight increase on the 3,240 reported the previous day. Also on Monday, France became the latest European country to introduce restrictions on non-essential travel to those arriving into the country from the UK.

Meanwhile, Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, also urged caution over the lifting of restrictions, stating: “I think it’s unfortunate that everyone’s got this particular date in their head, because really what we need to do is understand how things are going and adjust accordingly.

“What we’ve done wrong in the past is left it too late and delayed making decisions, ultimately pushed them back and then ended up with large waves of infection,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain, speaking in a personal capacity.

More than 39 million people across the UK have been vaccinated with one dose, while 25.5 million people have now been fully inoculated. Ministers are aiming to vaccinate all over-50s with both doses of the jab before the proposed June easing.

The latest vaccine push comes as data from Public Health England indicated that two doses of the vaccine were needed in order to receive maximum protection against the B.1.617.2 variant.

PHE data showed that two doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine were 88 per cent effective, while two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine were 60 per cent effective. One dose of either vaccine was only 33 per cent effective against the variant.

Environment minister George Eustice said on Monday that a final decision on the planned lifting would be announced to the public on June 14th, as the government continues to monitor the latest data.

“We can’t rule anything out because we know this has been a difficult pandemic, a dynamic situation,” Mr Eustice told the BBC. “The prime minister said all along that he is going to take this one step at a time.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021