UK

Boris Johnson says vaccines ARE effective against Covid variants

Boris Johnson today insisted lockdown is working and vaccines are effective against coronavirus variants – as he held out hopes summer holidays can happen this year.

The PM struck a positive tone as he visited a vaccination site in Yorkshire, saying there was evidence of a ‘flattening and maybe even a falling off of infection rates and hospitalisations’.

After a leaked Cabinet Office report hailed the ‘stabilising’ situation, he also stressed that the government believes all the jabs being used in the UK are effective against all variants. And after mixed messages from ministers he said he was ‘optimistic’ that Britons will be able to go on summer breaks. 

But Mr Johnson dodged committing to any timetable, amid fears that the South African version of the disease is transmitting in the community.

Two people in Surrey have tested positive for the variant of coronavirus, despite having no links to travel or previous cases of the strain – with ‘surge testing’ being carried out in the area to check the scale of the problem. In total the Department of Health says 107 cases have now been found in the UK. 

The PM told reporters on his visit to the vaccination hub in Batley: ‘We are starting to see some signs of a flattening and maybe even a falling off of infection rates and hospitalisations.

‘But don’t forget that they are still at a very high level by comparison with most points in the last 12 months, a really very high level.

‘So the risk is if you take your foot off the throat of the beast, as it were, and you allow things to get out of control again then you could, alas, see the disease spreading again fast before we have got enough vaccines into people’s arms.

‘That’s the risk.’

Asked about the issue with variants spreading, Mr Johnson said: ‘We are confident that all the vaccines that we are using provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants.’

He said the vaccines could be adapted to deal with new variants if necessary.

‘The fact is we are going to be living with Covid for a while to come in one way or another, I don’t think it will be as bad as the last 12 months – or anything like – of course, but it’s very, very important that our vaccines continue to develop and to adapt, and they will,’ he said. 

In other dramatic coronavirus developments today:

  • Ministers are believed to be considering giving spare vaccines to Ireland in the coming months after the EU staged a humiliating climbdown on its threat to ban exports; 
  • Britain could be back to something close to pre-coronavirus life as soon as the summer thanks to the UK’s vaccine juggernaut, according to a top scientist; 
  • It has been claimed Matt Hancock vetoed a deal to manufacture a British vaccine in the United States because it did not guarantee the UK would get the first supply of jabs;
  • Rishi Sunak has been warned against a money-raising Budget next month with the tax burden at a 70-year high and the manufacturing recovery stalling. 

The PM struck a positive tone as he visited a vaccination site in Yorkshire, saying there was evidence of a ‘flattening and maybe even a falling off of infection rates and hospitalisations’

Mr Johnson dodged committing to any timetable, amid fears that the South African version of the disease is transmitting in the community

Mr Johnson dodged committing to any timetable, amid fears that the South African version of the disease is transmitting in the community

Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert and member of the Sage advisory panel, said the jab could introduce huge changes within months if the rollout continues apace.

Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert and member of the Sage advisory panel, said the jab could introduce huge changes within months if the rollout continues apace.

Door to door testing for South African variant 

Health chiefs will carry out door-to-door swabs in the Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas of Woking from today to seek out the mutant strain, regardless of whether people have symptoms or not. Households within the ME15 area of Kent will also be visited and asked to take a PCR test.

It comes after two Surrey residents tested positive for the South African variant despite having no travel links to the country — the first sign of community transmission.

The ‘surge testing’ will be done by local health chiefs, along with Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health and Social Care. The surveillance scheme is expected to be broadened to Egham in the coming days.

Health officials are desperate not to let another Covid variant run rampant as Britain struggles to get a grip on the Kent strain which sparked a devastating second wave that plunged the country into its third lockdown.

So far there have been 105 cases of the South African variant, known as B.1.351, across the UK since December – but this is likely to be an underestimate because PHE only analyses one in 10 random positive samples.

The variant has mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people, and ministers have banned travel from South Africa and surrounding countries as a result.

But there is currently no evidence that the variant causes more severe illness and early studies suggest the current crop of jabs are good enough to protect against it. 

Health chiefs will carry out door-to-door swabs in the Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas of Woking from today to seek out the mutant strain, regardless of whether people have symptoms or not. Households within the ME15 area of Kent will also be visited and asked to take a PCR test.

It comes after two Surrey residents tested positive for the South African variant despite having no travel links to the country — the first sign of community transmission.

The ‘surge testing’ will be done by local health chiefs, along with Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health and Social Care. The surveillance scheme is expected to be broadened to Egham in the coming days.

Health officials are desperate not to let another Covid variant run rampant as Britain struggles to get a grip on the Kent strain which sparked a devastating second wave that plunged the country into its third lockdown.

So far there have been 105 cases of the South African variant, known as B.1.351, across the UK since December – but this is likely to be an underestimate because PHE only analyses one in 10 random positive samples.

The variant has mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people, and ministers have banned travel from South Africa and surrounding countries as a result.

But there is currently no evidence that the variant causes more severe illness and early studies suggest the current crop of jabs are good enough to protect against it. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today he was ‘confident’ that all the vaccines the UK has ordered will ‘provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants’.   

Ruth Hutchinson, director of public health for Surrey, said: ‘This is a precautionary measure – the more cases of the variant we find, the better chance we have at stopping it from spreading further. By playing your part and taking the test, you’ll be helping to keep your community and your loved ones safe.

‘It’s really important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, so you don’t need to worry.

Dr Alison Barnett, regional director at Public Health England South East, said: ‘The UK has one of the best genomic systems in the world which has allowed us to detect the variant originating in South Africa here in Surrey.

‘I urge everyone offered a test to take it up to help us to monitor the virus in our communities and to help suppress and control the spread of this variant.

‘The most important thing is that people continue to follow the guidance that is in place – limit your number of contacts, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, keep your distance and cover your face. If you test positive by any method, you must isolate to stop the spread of the virus.’

Professor Adam Finn said a ‘real effort’ should be made to try to ‘eliminate’ the South African variant before it took hold.

Prof Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the BBC: ‘A real effort needs to be made to make a circle around it and then eliminate it, if that can be achieved.

PM ‘optimistic’ about summer holidays 

Boris Johnson has give Britons more hope about summer holidays – despite refusing to give a timetable for easing lockdown.  

The PM said he is ‘optimistic’ people will be able to enjoy a break this year, provided the disease can be kept under control.

‘I don’t want to give too much concrete by way of dates for our summer holidays. I am optimistic – I understand the reasons for being optimistic – but some things have got to go right,’ he said during a visit to Batley, West Yorkshire.

‘The vaccine programme has got to continue to be successful. We have got to make sure we don’t get thrown off course by new variants, we have got to make sure that we continue to keep the disease under control and the level of infections come down.’  

The premier’s words were echoed by a top scientist, who said the UK could be back to something close to pre-coronavirus life as soon as the summer thanks to the UK’s vaccine juggernaut.

Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert and member of the Sage advisory panel, said the jab could introduce huge changes within months if the rollout continues apace.

And he suggested that the lockdown could start to be eased some time next month as hoped – but will need to be done ‘relatively gradually’ and carefully to avoid a spike in cases.  

‘I think that’s a maybe but it is definitely worth a try.

‘The other thing to do is to continue focusing on all the right people with the doses of the vaccines that we have got because the efficiency of the programme is entirely dependent on not just giving lots of doses out but giving the doses to the right people, the people most at risk of getting sick.’

After a shocking report warned that the pandemic could wipe £350billion off children’s future earnings, Mr Johnson said that while the economy can bounce back strongly he is concerned about the impact on education.

‘It is going to take a while for our country to bounce back completely from Covid. The economy, I think, can bounce back very, very strongly – the UK has immense natural resilience,’ he said.

‘The thing that really concerns me at the moment is education and the deficit in our children’s education that we have run up as a result of these lockdowns.

‘That for me is one of the major, major priorities for us – making sure that we ameliorate and repair the loss of time in the classroom, the loss of educational opportunities.’

He also gave a strong hint that England will not return to the ‘tiers’ system of varying local curbs when the third national lockdown eases.  

He told reporters: ‘It may be that a national approach, going down the tiers in a national way, might be better this time round, given that the disease is behaving much more nationally.

‘If you look at the way the new variant has taken off across the country, it’s a pretty national phenomenon.

‘The charts I see, we’re all sort of moving pretty much in the same sort of way, I mean there are a few discrepancies, a few differences, so it may be that we will go for a national approach but there may be an advantage still in some regional differentiation as well. I’m keeping an open mind on that.’

Mr Johnson said he is ‘optimistic’ people will be able to enjoy a summer holiday this year, provided the disease can be kept under control.

‘I don’t want to give too much concrete by way of dates for our summer holidays. I am optimistic – I understand the reasons for being optimistic – but some things have got to go right,’ he said during a visit to Batley, West Yorkshire.

‘The vaccine programme has got to continue to be successful. We have got to make sure we don’t get thrown off course by new variants, we have got to make sure that we continue to keep the disease under control and the level of infections come down.’ 

The premier’s words were echoed by a top scientist, who said the UK could be back to something close to pre-coronavirus life as soon as the summer thanks to the UK’s vaccine juggernaut.

Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert and member of the Sage advisory panel, said the jab could introduce huge changes within months if the rollout continues apace.

And he suggested that the lockdown could start to be eased some time next month as hoped – but will need to be done ‘relatively gradually’ and carefully to avoid a spike in cases.  

His optimism came after a weekend of mixed messages from ministers about what the summer will look like for lockdown-weary Britons.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock raised the hopes of millions yesterday as he said that he expected a ‘Great British summer’ powered by the success of the vaccine rollout.

But less than half an hour after his local BBC interview, Trade Secretary Liz Truss said it was ‘dangerous’ for ministers to go on television ‘making promises about people’s summer holidays’.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programe this morning,  Prof Tildesley said: ‘The danger is that as we start to unwind controls we offset the gains we get from vaccinations so we need to be very careful.

‘But if the vaccine rollout continues at high levels and we do find that actually these vaccines are good at blocking transmission as well as preventing severe infection, then we are in a good position.

Tax burden for Britons is at a 70-year high 

The tax burden is at a 70-year high amid warnings businesses face disaster if Chancellor Rishi Sunak moves to raise more money in next month’s Budget.

The Treasury is set to rake in 34.2 per cent of economic output in the next financial year, according to campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance. 

The average tax burden – the amount of tax taken by the Treasury compared with the size of the economy – over the last five years has already climbed to 33.8 per cent, the highest since 1951. 

The Chancellor is believed to be considering a rise in capital gains tax as he tries to balance the books after the coronavirus pandemic. Business tax and fuel duty rises are also thought to be among the potential targets.

But grim figures today show the UK’s recovery already appears to be stalling, with activity in the manufacturing sector falling to a three-month low due to fresh lockdowns and post-Brexit supply chain disruptions.

The CBI has been calling for the holiday on business rates to be extended further, with firms still under huge pressure. 

‘And hopefully by the summer we can get back to something pretty close to what we have seen before the pandemic was normal.’

His optimistic outlook came as Ryanair’s boss  voiced his hope that European beach holidays could return this summer thanks to vaccines.

Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of the budget airline, said he believes there could be a huge surge in demand for flights to Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal this summer.

His airline has already tried to advertise holidays this year with a ‘jab and go’ advert. 

In a message of optimism, he predicted that the Covid-hit travel and hospitality industry could finally ‘return to normal’ by the end of this year – due to a ‘pent-up demand’ from beach-deprived Britons.

But, speaking on the day the Irish low-cost carrier announced expected losses of £800million across 2021, he warned the boom was dependent on the success of the UK’s Covid vaccine roll-out.

So far almost nine million Britons have received their first dose of a Covid jab – with the Government currently on track to have everyone over the age of 50 vaccinated by the end of March.

And Mr O’Leary believes ministers should lift travel restrictions once Britain’s most vulnerable have been protected.

Local elections due to take place on May 6 look like they will go ahead, after the Conservative Party told activists they should campaign without knocking on doors or delivering leaflets during the lockdown.

Last night it was revealed proxy voting rules are to be altered to accommodate people with coronavirus

Currently people who wish to nominate a friend to vote on their behalf have to give six weeks’ notice which would rule out many people struck down by the pandemic or forced to self-isolate.

Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of the budget airline, said he believes there could be a huge surge in demand for intra-European flights this summer

Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of the budget airline, said he believes there could be a huge surge in demand for intra-European flights this summer

Mr Hancock has long been a summer optimist despite the horrific coronavirus death rate. In December he revealed he had already booked his summer holiday

Mr Hancock has long been a summer optimist despite the horrific coronavirus death rate. In December he revealed he had already booked his summer holiday

But the rules are to be changed to allow proxies to be nominated on the same day as a vote, as late as 5pm. 

Appearing on BBC Politics East yesterday morning, Suffolk East MP Mr Hancock said he was confident that a high percentage of the UK population would have had their jab within the next six months, enabling a roll-back of restrictions that have been in place since the new year.

‘In six months we will be in the middle of, I hope, a happy and free great British summer. I have a high degree of confidence that by then the vast majority of adults will have been vaccinated.

‘That is not just the clinically vulnerable groups but then going to all groups, people like me – I’m in my 40s and healthy and we will have got though everybody. ‘That will give a high level of protection.’

Speaking a short time later on LBC radio, Ms Truss said that the government’s focus was on schools.

‘We have to just focus on step by step and summer holidays, I’m afraid, are a lower priority than getting kids back to school,’ she told the radio station.  

‘If there is one thing we have learnt during the coronavirus crisis so far, is how unpredictable things are, what things could emerge.

‘I think it would be very dangerous for a government minister to go on your show making promises about people’s summer holidays.’

She accepted that current rules which require quarantine and negative Covid tests would likely be ‘quite permanent’ and would be in place for the ‘foreseeable future’

Later, speaking on Andrew Marr, she said there was a long way to go before the summer months. 

The travel industry, both domestic and international, has been among the worst-hit by the repeated lockdowns over the past 10 months. 

Mr Hancock has long been a summer optimist despite the horrific coronavirus death rate.

In December he revealed he had already booked his summer holiday, travelling to Cornwall with his osteopath wife Martha and their three children.

Speaking in the Commons Mr Hancock had said: ‘I do have high confidence that the summer of 2021 will be a bright one without the sort of restrictions that made the summer of 2020 more restrictive. I’ve booked my holiday. I’m going to Cornwall.’ 


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