Johnson warns Indian variant could derail plans to fully lift Covid restrictions

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth blames government delay for surge in cases

A man walks past a banner featuring a coronavirus testing site set up at St Mary’s church hall in the London borough of Hillingdon, England on May 14th. Photograph:   Adrian Dennis / AFP

A man walks past a banner featuring a coronavirus testing site set up at St Mary’s church hall in the London borough of Hillingdon, England on May 14th. Photograph: Adrian Dennis / AFP

 

Boris Johnson has warned that the spread of the Indian variant could derail plans to fully lift coronavirus restrictions in England at the end of next month.

Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, he said that although cases of the variant were rising, it was not yet known how transmissible it was in comparison to other strains of the virus.

“I am told that if it’s only marginally more transmissible, we can continue more or less as planned. But if the virus is significantly more transmissible, we are likely to face some hard choices. 

“We are going to be learning a lot more in the coming days and weeks about that.The good news is that so far we have no evidence to suggest our vaccines will be less effective in protecting people against severe illness and hospitalisation. So that means we are in a different position from the last time we face a new variant before Christmas because of the scale of our vaccine rollout.”

Cases of the Indian variant more than doubled in the past week, according to Public Health England, and surge testing is taking place in 15 areas across the country, including Bolton, Blackburn, Nottingham and London.

England’s next easing of restrictions will go ahead as planned next Monday, with bars and restaurants allowed to serve indoors and museums, cinemas and theatres reopening. However, Mr Johnson said the next stage on June 21st, when restrictions on indoor gatherings and many social distancing requirements are due to be lifted, could be delayed.

“I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress, and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June,” he said.

Eight weeks

Mr Johnson said second vaccine doses for people over 50 would be accelerated so the gap between first and second doses would be no more than eight weeks.

“Our surveillance and data gathering is now so advanced, that if there was a danger of the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure, we would see the signs in the data very early on and could react in good time, and that gives us the confidence to continue moving forwards for now,” he said.

“But I urge everyone to exercise the greatest caution because the choices we each make in the coming days will have a material effect on the road ahead.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth blamed the government’s delay in stopping people arriving from India into Britain for the surge in cases of the new variant.

“People across the country will be deeply concerned, and tonight’s news brings into sharp focus Boris Johnson’s reckless failure to protect our borders in this crisis. Only a few weeks ago we urged Matt Hancock to designate this a variant of concern and respond with speed and resolve,” he said.

“As expert public health officials on the ground are saying we now need ‘surge vaccinations’ in areas of prevalence, enhanced contact tracing and crucially; to fix sick pay and isolation support. Having come so far we don’t want to be set back now.”