British health secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday there was increasing confidence that vaccines worked against the coronavirus variant first detected in India, but warned that it could "spread like wildfire" among the unvaccinated.
Mr Hancock defended the government’s decision to press ahead with the latest stage of the lifting of England’s lockdown on Monday, but admitted the variant, known as B.1.617, could blow the strategy off course.
He did not exclude the possibility that restrictions might have to be reintroduced if the variant ran out of control, but said: “We don’t want to do that. That’s not what we are looking to do.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson has said the lifting of the lockdown – which includes the reopening of indoor hospitality, cinemas and hotels on Monday – should be cautious but "irreversible".
Mr Hancock also refused to commit to the lifting of all remaining restrictions on June 21st – the final stage of the government’s road map – saying a decision would be made on June 14th.
He said the current plan was to deploy surge vaccination, notably in Bolton, where there has been an uptick in cases of the Indian variant. A new vaccination centre will open in the town on Monday.
Mr Hancock revealed on the BBC's Andrew Marr programme that, of 18 hospital admissions in Bolton, "the majority" of cases involved people "who haven't had the jab but are eligible for the jab".
He said there was increasing confidence that vaccines were effective against the variant; he said five people in hospital in Bolton had received a single jab while only one patient, who was frail, had received two doses.
Mr Hancock told Sky that B.1.617 could “spread like wildfire” among those who were not vaccinated. He said there was “a high degree of confidence it transmits faster” than the variant first detected in Kent.
Mr Hancock urged everyone who was eligible for a vaccination – but had not taken it up – to come forward. He also said that over-35s would be invited to have a jab this week.
He rejected Labour criticism that the government acted too slowly in putting India on the red list for Covid-19, requiring new arrivals to quarantine in government-approved hotels.
Pakistan and Bangladesh were put on the red list on April 9th but India was not added until April 23rd. Labour has claimed Mr Johnson was reluctant to upset Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, with whom he was trying to strike a trade deal.
Mr Hancock insisted that arrivals from Bangladesh and Pakistan being tested in the UK ahead of April 9th were displaying more positive tests for Covid-19 than those arriving from India.
"They should have put India on the red list at the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh," said Yvette Cooper, Labour chair of the Commons health committee. "Since then, we've had this three-week period in which thousands of people have returned from India and that probably includes hundreds of the new variant Covid cases."
John Edmunds, epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the BBC that B.1.617 was likely "to become dominant soon".
He said that if India had been added to the red list earlier it “could have delayed things a little bit” but he thought the arrival of the new strain could not have been avoided. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021