B.1.617 Covid variant, first detected in India, threatens UK reopening plans: PM
The UK will speed up its coronavirus vaccine program to combat a surge in cases of the India variant after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned the new strain could derail his plan to end lockdown.
Speaking in London, the premier announced the gap between first and second doses will be cut to eight weeks from 12 for the over-50s and clinically vulnerable. Anyone over 40 who hasn’t yet come forward for a shot will also be prioritized. While plans to allow people to mix indoors and travel overseas will go ahead from Monday, there is a real danger that the final stage of ending pandemic restrictions on June 21 could be delayed, Johnson said.
“I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress,” the premier at a press conference in London. “The race between our vaccination program and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter.”
The grim assessment is a sobering moment for the UK which has been riding a wave of upbeat news on the success of its vaccine rollout, with two-thirds of adults now having received at least one dose.
It is also a political headache for the premier, who is facing opposition from members of Parliament his own Conservative party to any moves to delay unlocking the economy. Johnson has defended his “cautious” approach to ensure that lifting restrictions, saying he wanted each step to be “irreversible,” making the lockdown at the start of the year the country’s last.
The number of confirmed infections of the India strain more than doubled in the past week to 1,313 from 520, according to Public Health England. There has been a particular cluster of cases in northwestern English towns of Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen.
While there’s no evidence the India variant can evade vaccines, there are signs that it spreads more easily than the Kent mutation which ran rampant in the UK at the start of the year, prompting a third national lockdown.
Advisers warned they expect the India strain to become dominant in the UK over time. There’s a “realistic possibility” that the new variant is 50% more transmissible than the current dominant strain of coronavirus, according to a paper released on Friday from the government’s scientific advisors.
If that’s the case and the UK proceeds with its plans to unlock, it could “lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalization,” the document said.
Johnson said the government expects to press ahead with the next phase of easing restrictions on Monday because the overall numbers of India cases are low. Monday’s relaxation in the rules will bring the return of international leisure travel, and the reopening of pubs and restaurants indoors.
But he warned that if the India strain is “significantly more transmissible we are likely to face some hard choices” about what happens next. He appealed to the public to continue to get tested for free twice a week and to stick to social distancing rules.
“It’s very clear now we are going to have to live with this new variant of the virus as well for some time,” he said.