Does The South African Variant Mean The UK Is Finally Learning To Go In ‘Hard And Fast’ On Covid?

Are new variants an alibi for past mistakes, or proof that a different approach works?

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When the public inquiry into the UK Covid pandemic finally publishes its lengthy report (in say, 2023?) it’s likely that going into lockdown harder and earlier, while coming out slower and cautiously, will be one of its themes. The government is equally likely to blame the third wave on the sheer speed of spread of the “Kent variant”.

On Monday, with the first signs of community spread of the “South African variant”, Matt Hancock appeared to want to combine both lessons, saying “we need to come down on it hard”. Even though this new arrival is roughly as transmissible as the UK version (ie very), it’s clear that Hancock and health officials want to move quickly to contain it.

That may be easier said than done. Although just 11 community cases have been found, they are in very different areas of England, ranging from Southport to Walsall to Maidstone. None of the cases is linked, we’re told, and with testing likely to pick up just 5% of cases, the new door-to-door testing is in a race against time to halt the spread.

Hancock’s press conference was a microcosm of the government’s challenge right now of getting across the excellent news on vaccines rollout while trying to tell the public not to drop their guard. Perhaps that’s why, although the South Africa variant rained on the health secretary’s parade (as he flagged the 9.2 million people jabbed so far), it was actually not unhelpful that the new variant showed once more why lockdown must be observed.

As Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins set out, the real fear about the South African mutation is that it could in time mutate again, making it even less susceptible to the vaccines administered so far. And if the “surge” testing helps combat the spread, there will be a long-lasting lesson for all the other variants that seem now inevitable.

Still, one can’t help feeling that there is an element of ministers trying to avoid the apparent mistake before Christmas, when Boris Johnson saw data on the Kent variant and decided against a national lockdown. One senior insider said the department of health was trying to get on top of the South African mutation in a way that it simply didn’t with the Kent virus.

Indeed, another conclusion from that future public inquiry may be the advantage of national lockdowns over regional tiers. Even Mark Harper, of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers, conceded a national approach was much simpler in terms of public health messaging (while arguing it ought not to delay the path out of lockdown).

The PM himself practically gave the game away when he gave a strong hint he would not return to tiering. “If you look at the way the new variant has taken off across the country, it’s a pretty national phenomenon,” he said. Yes, and the Kent variant was a national phenomenon within the blink of an eye, critics would argue. Families of the bereaved in the north and midlands may well be thinking why he left it so late.

One further lesson learned in the Covid Inquiry is almost certain to be the need for an effective test and trace and isolate system. As I wrote last week, Test and Trace has improved markedly in the past fortnight and many will hope the better contact tracing rates and shorter turnaround times for PCR tests (which will be crucial in tackling the South Africa variant) prove sustainable. Fast genomic sequencing for new variants is also a huge achievement.

Yet as we have revealed HERE, there remain question marks over the value for money of Test and Trace, or more specifically over the 30-minute lateral flow tests it is now pumping out in huge numbers to hospitals, schools and workplaces. More than £1bn has been spent on tests (devised by US firm Innova but made in China) that some view as simply not accurate enough.

And it’s worth taking a moment to assess the sheer scale of spending on Test and Trace: the department of health has just four months (from December to March 31) to spend a massive £15bn – bigger than the entire annual budget of the Home Office – much of it on lateral flow tests.

The PM proudly declared last week that “we’ve created an indigenous industry not just to conduct lateral flow testing, but to make lateral flow tests.” Yet it’s taken some time to start awarding contracts to British firms and it may not be April until they can start producing the mass numbers required.

Figures within the UK industry are excited that they’re on the verge of getting their own tests (which have a higher accuracy than Innova’s, at lower cost and without the need to shell out for Virgin Atlantic jets from China) approved and sold. As the vaccine programme has proved, UK-based factories mean shorter supply lines and security of supply, both vital given the twin challenges of the pandemic and of Brexit.

Hancock pointed out that the extra 40m doses of the Valneva vaccine ordered today would be produced by a factory in Scotland. If there is a pivot away from Chinese imports of lateral flow tests towards UK-made ones that are more accurate and better value for the taxpayer, our bioscience industry and our manufacturing base can only benefit.


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