Covid: June reopening not guaranteed, says minister, as Indian variant surges

Scrapping social distancing measures by June 21 'hangs in the balance' due to rising Indian variant cases, according to one expert. Credit: PA

The June 21 reopening is not guaranteed, a minister has said, as cases of the Indian variant doubled in a week leading to fresh doubts over the ending of Covid restrictions in England next month.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he couldn't "guarantee one thing or the other" in relation to the planned reopening of the country on June 21.

Speaking to Sky News he said: "It's impossible for anyone to know what the situation will be like in a week or two weeks' time."

Epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling was instrumental in persuading the government to bring in the first lockdown, said the planned unlocking “hangs in the balance” due to the growth of the variant of concern.

And, Dr Helen Wall, senior responsible officer for the Covid vaccine programme in Bolton, which is one of the hotspots for the variant, said there are “significant numbers of 30- and 40-year-olds” going into hospital there, and tens of thousands of people in the area who have only just become eligible for the vaccine.

But she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that hospitals were seeing patients who were far less sick than previous Covid patients.

“In terms of how ill they’re getting, I think the vaccine definitely seems to be working,” she said.

“We are not seeing, certainly not many people as sick as we would have done pre-vaccine, certainly the picture in hospital is much better to previous times when we’ve been at this position.”

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Officials are examining the data after confirmed cases of the Indian variant of Covid-19 reached almost 7,000. It is now the dominant strain in the UK, one expert said.

Boris Johnson said he didn't "see anything currently in the data” to divert from the June 21 target for the next stage of exiting lockdown, but added that “we may need to wait” for more data.

On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at a press briefing “as many as three-quarters” of all new cases are now of the Indian variant, and urged vigilance.

The Cabinet minister also told MPs it was too early to say whether the full lifting of restrictions will go ahead as the Government waits to see what happens with hospital admissions.

Public Health England (PHE) put the hospital admission rate for Covid-19 at 0.79 per 100,000 people in the week to May 23, compared to 0.75 per 100,000 in the previous week.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said that, while Covid infection rates had risen across most age groups and regions, “encouragingly the number in hospitals across the country remains low”.

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Mr Hancock said there were “early signs” that coronavirus rates in Indian variant hotspot town Bolton were starting to “cap out”, sparking hope that efforts to surge test and vaccinate were having an impact.

It comes after Imperial College London’s Prof Ferguson said the B.1.617 mutation from south-east Asia was now “the dominant strain” in the UK and that the full reopening of society on June 21 “hangs in the balance”.

Epidemiologist and Government adviser Professor John Edmunds also warned on ITV’s Peston that it looked “a little bit risky” to be relaxing all restrictions in just over three weeks time.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested the country might have to ‘wait’ for Covid measures to be eased Credit: Glyn Kirk/PA

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said she agreed with Prof Ferguson’s reading of the situation and admitted the numbers had become “quite worrying”.

“If you just look at the pure data which is out today it looks quite worrying,” she told a Downing Street press conference.

“We had 3,535 cases of the 617.2 last week, and we have just about double that, 6,959, now.”

She said it was “on the cusp at the moment” over whether rising cases reflected the variant taking off or whether there was a rise because more cases are being hunted for and detected, with more socialising also now permitted.

“The good news, of course, is we are not seeing that generally translate into increased cases of hospitalisation and definitely not into deaths,” Dr Harries added.

“So the key message there is … if we can hold it while the vaccination programme gets rolled out, we stand a much better chance of getting through this session.”

In England, 6,180 cases of the Indian variant have been confirmed, along with 702 in Scotland, 58 in Wales and 19 in Northern Ireland.

Mr Hancock said the increase in cases of the Indian variant remained focused in “hotspots” where surge testing and vaccinations were taking place.

He added that of the 49 people in hospital with coronavirus in Bolton, only five have had both doses of vaccine.

“So when you get the call, get the jab, and make sure you come forward for your second doses so you can get the maximum possible protection,” he said.

“The vaccine is severing the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths from coronavirus.”