Expert warns people should be 'very concerned' about spike in Indian variant cases, as uncertainty grows over June 21

Leading scientists are warning that further easing of lockdown restrictions should be done with caution, ITV News Reporter Helen Keenan reports

People should be "very concerned" about the spike in the Covid variant cases, which was first identified in India, an expert has warned.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told ITV News the variant was "clearly more transmissible".

"There's an imperative to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and to get the most vulnerable individuals fully vaccinated with their second dose.

"We need to carry on moving at speed and then given the transmissibility of the variant there is even more urgency to keep that vaccination programme rolling out quickly."

Professor Harnden added said we need to look at what happens with the Indian variant in the next one or two weeks.

"Should we go for June 21 unlocking-down, we still - particularly those unvaccinated individuals - need to remain cautious because of the transmissibility of the variant."

Professor Anthony Harnden tells ITV News we need to remain cautious as lockdown eases

Another professor, whose argument against herd immunity helped trigger England's first lockdown, also urged caution is needed in determining whether England’s coronavirus restrictions can be lifted next month or the situation could turn bad “very, very quickly”.

Sir Tim Gowers, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian the downside of being “a bit more cautious” was a lot smaller than the downside of getting it wrong.

When asked about the next step in lockdown easing in England, due on June 21, Prof Gowers said he did not believe the plans were necessarily at risk, but urged caution.

"Because Boris Johnson has made a big thing about all the steps being irreversible, I think he’s put himself in a position where once he takes a step, he’ll be extremely reluctant to reverse because that would be a big U-turn, an embarrassing climbdown," he said.

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He added: “So I think if that’s the way you’re going to play things, then you should be very, very cautious about every step you take … And maybe everything [will] be OK, maybe the number of people who are vaccinated will be just enough … ‘R’ will broadly speaking stay below one even with Indian variants.

“But if it’s not OK, we know, because of mathematics, that things will get bad very, very quickly. Or at least, maybe it won’t look that quick to start with, but it’ll grow exponentially.

“So it’ll pick up speed and become a big problem.”

The Guardian said Prof Gowers sent the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings a five-page document warning of the need to “move urgently to extreme containment measures” in March last year

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Other experts on Friday argued restrictions should remain in place until more of the population had received both vaccine doses. Professor Christina Pagel, a member of Independent Safe from University College London, said reopening should be delayed a few more months.

The Prime Minister told reporters on Thursday he “didn’t see anything currently in the data” to divert from the June reopening target before adding "but we may need to wait” for more data.

The Times reported face coverings and work from home guidance may remain in place after June 21, when all legal limits on social contact are due to be lifted in England.

It said ministers were increasingly concerned the spread of the Indian variant could undermine the easing of restrictions and were drawing up plans that could lead to a partial end of lockdown.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

But the paper added the Treasury was prioritising the removal of the “one-metre plus” and “rule of six indoors” measures in order to help the economy recover.

A review of what measures will be relaxed on June 21 was due by the end of May but has been pushed back due to the Indian variant.

It comes as a single-shot coronavirus vaccine from Johnson & Johnson has also been approved for use in the UK and should be available towards the end of the year.

The vaccine is part of the UK’s Cov-Boost study which is examining the effectiveness of a range of vaccines that could be used as a booster shot in the autumn.

The Department of Health and Social Care announced on Friday further surge testing was being deployed in Lancashire after more cases of the Indian variant were detected.

Bolton is one of the areas of the UK where the Covid variant first identified in India is spreading fastest. Credit: PA

People living, studying and working in areas including Burnley, Pendle, Hyndburn and Rossendale are being urged to take a PCR test even if they do not have symptoms, while additional mobile testing units and Covid-19 tests are being deployed to higher educational settings.

Current data suggests although hospital admissions are rising in some parts of the country affected by the Indian variant, overall admissions remain broadly flat.

Meanwhile, the reproduction number – the R value – for England is 1 to 1.1, up from 0.9 and 1.1 the previous week, suggesting the epidemic is growing.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

The latest seven-day average for daily hospital admissions in England is 88 (up to May 25), which is an increase of 15% on seven days earlier.

The figure means hospital admissions are back to where they were at the start of May and remain 98% below the second-wave peak in January.

Public Health England data shows the majority of people with the Indian variant have not been vaccinated, with just 3% of cases (177 out of 5,599) from February 1 to May 25 having received both doses.

Over the period there were 12 deaths linked to the variant, of which eight were among the unvaccinated.