Lockdown restrictions are supposed to ease across much of the UK from May 17 and we’re hurtling towards that precious June 21 date, when many are hoping life will return to normal. But the India variant threatens to set it back.
Evidence suggests the B1617.2 variant is at least as transmissible as B117 (the Kent variant), with concerns it could be even more transmissible – and cases are spreading rapidly in the UK.
In England, which has the most cases, incidences have been reported in the North West – predominantly Bolton and Blackburn – as well as London, Bedford and South Northamptonshire.
Meanwhile, the latest data suggests there are 17 cases in Wales, at least 12 cases in Northern Ireland and 20-30 cases in Scotland, where rising numbers in Moray and Glasgow are of particular concern.
Discussion has started on whether “surge vaccination” should begin in these areas. Here’s what we know about the plans so far:
What is a ‘surge’ vaccine?
The concept of “surge” vaccinations is simple: vaccinate more people in the worst affected areas, sooner.
Vaccines minster Nadhim Zahawi told LBC’s Nick Ferrari that the government is looking at ways to “flex” the rollout of vaccines in areas most impacted by the variant, including vaccinating everyone in multi-generational households, from 18-year-olds to grandparents.
More vaccine doses have already been sent to Bolton, which has a particularly high rate of the India variant, while 800,000 PCR tests have been sent to 15 separate areas of England, including parts of London and Merseyside, he said.
Another option also being considered by clinical advisers to the government is to bring forward the date for second doses of vaccine for the elderly and vulnerable in regions where the India variant is spreading.
Research is underway to monitor how effective the vaccinations are against the India variant. Early evidence suggests the India variant won’t escape vaccination as effectively as the South African variant, according to Professor Chris Whitty.
Why am I hearing about this now?
The latest data from Public Health England released on May 13 shows cases of the India variant have more than doubled in a week in the UK, rising from 520 to 1,313. Meetings are happening on May 14 to discuss the best course of action.
In Bolton, mobile testing units have already been deployed and door-to-door PCR testing has been offered to 22,000 residents. A vaccine bus has been established in the community to increase vaccine uptake as part of a wider drive.
In London, PHE is working in close partnership across the health system and with borough councils in parts of the city where cases have been identified. PCR testing, whole genome sequencing, and enhanced contact tracing are being used throughout the city to target the many small dispersed clusters.
Are ‘surge’ vaccines available?
An official policy is yet to be announced, but it emerged that a handful of areas in England are encouraging all over-18s to come forward for the jab.
Elsewhere in England, the vaccine rollout was extended to those aged 38 to 39 on May 13 and everyone eligible is being urged to book – especially if you live in an area with rising cases.
In Scotland, all over-18s living in Moray are now able to book a vaccine, in an effort to tackle rising Covid cases in the area.
HuffPost UK is not aware of surge testing in Wales or Northern Ireland at this time.
Will the India variant stop lockdown from ending?
At the moment, we don’t know for certain if the variant will prolong lockdown, but it’s a possibility. Boris Johnson has said the government is “ruling nothing out” in tackling the variant.
Asked if local lockdowns in England were possible, the prime minister said: “There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it.
“At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21 everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.”
Wales has already held back on relaxing some restrictions due to concerns about the India variant. From May 17, indoor hospitality will reopen in Wales, but First Minister Mark Drakeford says meeting people in homes and small events are “both now on hold”.
Asked if he would be prepared to delay further steps in his roadmap if advice from Sage suggests it is necessary, Drakeford said: “Yes, we would. We tried our best to follow the scientific advice at every step and if the advice were to be that we should hold back on some further easements because the risks in doing so would be too great then certainly that is what we would do.”
In Scotland, Professor Jason Leitch said work is underway to see if the variant “would set us back”. “We’re a little bit unsure about the nature of this individual variant, it’s at least as transmissible as the Kent variant, we hope it’s not worse, but we’re having to do lots of science to find out,” he told BBC Radio Scotland. “That’s one of the big concerns, we’ve talked about that for months, a variant worse than Kent would set us back.”
In Northern Ireland, May 24 was earmarked as an “indicative date” for when indoor hospitality may reopen, but some hoped this may be brought forward. However, some reports are now suggesting this date will be “stuck rigidly” to, in part due to the India variant.