Britain’s coronavirus cases have risen by 65 per cent in a week amid the rapid spread of the Indian variant, a symptom-tracking app warned today.
The ZOE and King’s College London study estimated 2,800 Britons were being infected with the virus every day last week, up from 1,686 in the previous seven-day spell.
But one of the experts behind the surveillance project claimed vaccines had ‘changed the game’, and ensured jabbed participants who caught the virus experienced only a mild form of the disease.
Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the ZOE Covid study, said: ‘While the increase in cases this week is likely to be real, the overall numbers are still just a fraction of what they were at the height of the pandemic. Increases of this size are to be expected with changes in social behaviour as restrictions ease.
Test and Trace data showed the number of people testing positive for Covid fell nine per cent last week, to 14,300. But this was a much smaller fall than in January when the harsh lockdown was driving down cases.
It comes as SAGE scientists were called to an emergency meeting today because of rising cases of the Indian variant, which reports suggest has spiked three-fold in a week. For comparison, infections with other variants have remained consistently low. Sanger Institute data shows it is now dominant in four local authorities in England.
England’s lockdown-easing plans were left hanging in the balance today as a Government minister suggested the final step on the roadmap could be delayed due to the B.1.617.2 strain.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly claimed officials were waiting on the assessments of No10’s top scientific advisers before deciding if longer restrictions are needed. One expert told The i newspaper that a delay to the June 21 unlocking ‘is possible’.
The Government was criticised for being ‘weeks too late’ with enforcing its travel ban on India, which only came into force in late April — despite officials knowing about the variant for weeks. The move allowed thousands of travellers from coronavirus-stricken India to pour into the UK.
Studies suggest the variant — first detected in Britain in February — may be 60 per cent more transmissible than the highly infectious Kent version (B.1.1.7) that triggered the UK’s raging second wave. But experts have no reason to believe it evades vaccines and reports from India suggest it still protects against severe illness.
Surveillance data shows it is already dominant in Bolton and Blackburn, where infections have doubled in the last seven days. Testing figures also show it is behind half of all Covid infections in Bedford, South Northamptonshire and Sefton in Merseyside. Cases are also increasing in London.
While only pockets of the country are being impacted at present, scientists have warned against tiered localised lockdowns and said the variant should be viewed as a national problem.
The ZOE Covid Symptom Study app found the number of symptomatic Covid cases caught a day had risen by 65 per cent in a week to 2,800. But they said any infections in vaccinated people tended to be milder
Test and Trace data showed the number of Covid cases transferred to the system had fallen by nine per cent compared to last week at 14,300. But this was a much smaller drop than in previous weeks
An emergency meeting will be held by experts at the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee today after it was found that India’s Covid variant is now dominant in five local authorities in England. There are mounting concerns that it is more infectious than the currently dominant Kent strain
How Bolton’s rising infection rate has been triggered by the Indian variant: Public Health England data shows the strain is making up almost 70 per cent of new cases in the Greater Manchester town after its prevalence doubled a month
Professor James Naismith (left), a structural biologist at Oxford University, claimed the strain will eventually ‘get everywhere’ as the Kent variant did when it emerged in the South East last autumn. Striking a more optimistic tone, SAGE adviser Professor Steven Riley (right), from Imperial College London, told Times Radio there was a need to keep an eye on variants but suggested the UK was currently in a good place
Public Health England has divided the Indian variant into three sub-types. Type 1 and Type 3 both have a mutation called E484Q but Type 2 is missing this, despite still clearly being a descendant of the original Indian strain. Type 1 and 3 have a slightly different set of mutations. The graphic shows all the different variants that have been spotted in Britain
Surveillance data shows it is already dominant in Bolton and Blackburn, where infections have doubled in the last seven days. Pictured, a sign urging people to get tested in Bolton town centre
The ZOE Covid Symptom study relies on reports from more than 700,000 Britons on whether they are suffering Covid symptoms and have tested positive for the virus to model its spread through the country.
Statisticians behind the app updated their methodology this week because most of their participants had been vaccinated (80 per cent) compared to almost 68 per cent in the population.
They said their study includes 80,000 Britons who have not been vaccinated, and more than 600,000 that have already received at least one dose. The majority of participants are aged between 40 and 60.
Their study can only pick out symptomatic Covid infections, but misses those that do not spark any warning signs. Official estimates suggest these could account for up to a third of all cases.
Professor Spector said: ‘In light of the huge success of the vaccine roll out it was essential that we addressed our methodology. We have a disproportionately high number of vaccinated individuals among our contributors so we’ve adjusted our figures to better reflect the rate of vaccination in the UK population.’
A spokeswoman said they spotted the issue when their estimates were consistently lower than those from other studies.
Results also revealed Britons who caught Covid after they were vaccinated experienced a more mild disease.
More than 50 per cent of respondents who tested positive after getting their first dose said they did not have any of the ‘classic’ symptoms – a high temperature, cough and loss of smell and taste. This rose to 76 per cent among those who had both shots.
For comparison, only 30 per cent of un-vaccinated contributors who tested positive for the virus said they did not have any common symptoms of the disease.
Data also revealed that fully vaccinated people only reported up to one distinct Covid symptom within the first week of infection, compared to an average of five among those who were yet to be jabbed.
Professor Spector added: ‘Given the reported rise in daily new cases this week, it is reassuring that we’re seeing much milder infections than those seen prior to the vaccine roll out.
‘The majority of vaccinated people, when infected, don’t experience classic respiratory problems and experience fewer symptoms overall, which means rising infections have not yet resulted in an increase in hospitalisations or deaths and pressure on the NHS.
‘This is a signal that the game has changed, with vaccines allowing us to live much more normal lives in a world with Covid.’
Clinical trials showed the vaccines in use in the UK – AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna – were 100 per cent effective at stopping severe disease and death among those who had received both doses. And they were at least 70 per cent effective at stopping infections occurring following the jabs.
More than 35.7million Britons, or two in three adults, have been vaccinated against Covid. The NHS expanded the roll-out to include people aged 38 and 39 today, as it moves down the age groups.
Data show that seven out of England’s 10 Covid hotspots (inset) are in the North of England with three in the Midlands (Erewash, Bedford and North Lincolnshire), while the places where positive tests are rising fastest are scattered across the country
Sources at Downing Street played down the possibility of a delay to the Government’s lockdown roadmap and insisted Boris Johnson’s roadmap would go ahead. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham called for over-16s in Bolton and wider Greater Manchester area to be offered Covid vaccines earlier as the Indian variant continues to rise
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIAN VARIANTS?
Real name: B.1.617 — now divided into B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3
When and where was it discovered?
The variant was first reported by the Indian government in February 2021 but the first cases appear to date back to October 2020.
Its presence in the UK was first announced by Public Health England on April 15. There have since been at least 520 cases spotted in genetic lab testing.
What mutations does it have?
It has at least 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China. The two main ones are named E484Q and L452R, although the most common version in Britain (.2) does not have E484Q.
Scientists suspect L425R can help it to transmit faster and E484Q helps it get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
There is also a mutation called T478K but researchers don’t yet know what it does.
Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?
Research is ongoing but British scientists currently believe it spreads at least as fast as the Kent variant and potentially faster, but it is unlikely to slip past vaccine immunity.
SAGE advisers said in a meeting last week: ‘Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 [Kent] variant.’
Dr Susan Hopkins, a boss at Public Health England, said: ‘We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this is a more transmissible variant.’
Expectations are that the current Covid vaccines will still protect people against the Indian variants.
Early research by the Gupta Lab at Cambridge University found there was a small reduction in vaccine effectiveness on the original Indian variant, but it found the jabs worked better against it than they did on the South African strain. The team have not yet tested the .2 strain, which is the most common in the UK.
A paper published by SAGE advisers recently suggested two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is good enough to protect against all known variants, and it is likely the others will provide very strong defence against severe illness, even if there is a risk of reinfection.
Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines.
How deadly is it?
Professor Peacock said: ‘There isn’t any evidence that this causes more severe disease. There’s just not enough data at the moment.’
Scientists say it is unlikely that the variant will be significantly more dangerous than the Kent strain.
This is because there is no evolutionary benefit to Covid becoming more deadly. The virus’s sole goal is to spread as much as it can, so it needs people to be alive and mix with others for as long as possible to achieve this.
Although there have been claims that the Kent variant is more deadly than the virus it replaced – the Government claimed it was around 30 per cent – there is still no conclusive evidence to show any one version of Covid is worse than another.
Is the variant affecting children and young adults more seriously?
Doctors in India claim there has been a sudden spike in Covid hospital admissions among people under 45, who have traditionally been less vulnerable to the disease.
There have been anecdotal reports from medics that young people make up two third of new patients in Delhi. In Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.
But this could be completely circumstantial – older people are more likely to shield themselves or to have been vaccinated – and there is still no proof younger people are more badly affected by the new strain.
The risk of children getting ill with Covid is still almost non-existent.
Why is it a ‘variant of concern’ and should we be worried?
Public Health England listed the variant as ‘of concern’ because cases are growing rapidly and it appears to be equally infectious – or potentially even more – than other strains in Britain.
Last time a faster-spreading variant was discovered it caused chaos because the outbreak exploded and hospitals came close to breaking point in January, with almost 50,000 people dying in the second wave.
But there is currently no reason to be alarmed. Scientists believe our current vaccines will still work against the variant, preventing people from getting seriously ill or dying in huge numbers.
If it spreads faster than Kent it could make it harder to contain and make the third wave bigger, increasing the number of hospital admissions and deaths among people who don’t get vaccinated or for whom vaccines don’t work, but the jabs should take the edge off for the majority of people.
A vaccine that can make vaccinated people very sick en masse would be a real crisis for Britain and could ’cause even greater suffering than we endured in January’, Boris Johnson warned today – but there are not yet any signs the Indian variant will be the one to do this.
How many cases have been detected in the UK?
According to data by PHE released on Friday, there are, at present, 520 confirmed cases of the B.1.617.2 variant in the UK, from 202 over the last week.
The report also showed 261 cases of B.1.617.1 and nine cases of B.1.617.3.
The cases are spread across the country, with the majority in two areas – the North West, mainly in Bolton, and London. PHE said around half of these cases are related to travel or contact with someone who has been abroad.
Surge testing is expected to be deployed where there is evidence of community transmission.
Is B.1.617.2 variant driving the second wave in India?
India reported 412,262 new Covid-19 cases and 3,980 Covid-19-related deaths on Thursday — both new single-day records.
In the past 30 days, the country has recorded 8.3million cases.
However, it remains unclear whether the new coronavirus variants are driving the second wave.
Experts say large gatherings, and lack of preventive measures such as mask-wearing or social distancing, are playing a key role in the spread of the virus.
Although India has the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, the country has partially or fully immunised less than 10 per cent of its 1.35billion people.
It comes as Downing Street sources played down the possibility of a delay to the lockdown roadmap and insisted the schedule was still on track. Restrictions will be eased in England on Monday to allow pubs, restaurants and bars to serve customers indoors again.
But Environment Secretary George Eustice refused to rule out local lockdowns from next month when the national restrictions are expected to end, adding that officials were ‘closely monitoring’ several outbreaks that had cropped up in recent weeks.
Asked if the Indian Covid variant could ‘frustrate’ the vaccine programme, Professor Naismith said not enough was known to say for sure.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The vaccines don’t 100 per cent prevent infection for people. What they do, is they almost 100 per cent prevent hospitalisation and serious illness.
‘We don’t know enough to know yet whether the Indian strain will behave differently than that.
‘So even the regular virus can infect people who have been vaccinated and sometimes you do get reinfection. And the very, very large number of cases in India mean things that are rare will be detected.’
It came after the environment secretary yesterday said the Government ‘can’t rule anything out’ when it comes to localised lockdowns and trying to get on top of the Indian variant.
He told Sky News: ‘We want to try and avoid having to get into a tiered system and regionalisation, we tried that last autumn and in the end we had to go for full lockdown.
‘But there is always a risk and the greatest risk we have is a new variant that will come in that the vaccine is less effective against it.’
Quizzed about the lockdown-easing timetable, SAGE’s Professor Riley told Times Radio it would be a political decision but suggested the vaccines would prevent rising infections turning into a wave of hospitalisations.
He added: ‘Whether the restrictions run on a timetable is a Government decision and it’s just not useful to try and speculate what they will do.
‘I think there’s two key things that have got to be kind of evaluated: if infections go up, how quickly will they go up… but then after that, are they linked to the hospitalisations?
‘The top-line Government policy is driven by protecting the NHS, so even if infection starts to go up, we then need to assess whether that’s bringing a lot of new cases into hospitals, and there’s certainly no sign of that at the moment.’
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has called for over-16s in Bolton and the wider Greater Manchester area to be offered Covid vaccines earlier to quell the rise in cases of the Indian variant in Bolton.
Residents there today expressed fears to MailOnline that the rise of the strain could jeopardise the easing of the lockdown and prevent normal life from returning.
Businessman Dalawar Majeed, 42, who visited India earlier this year, before it was placed on the red list said: ‘It’s been a disastrous year financially and just when I was hoping that things would improve, we’ve now been hit with this Indian variant.
‘I was in India visiting family in January at the situation was not that bad out there. There are many people in this town with ties to the country and regularly travel there and have obviously brought this strain back.’
Frank Sullivan, 56 said: ‘I was really looking forward to sitting inside a pub and having a pint. The concern now is that given the Indian variant, that might not happen.
‘The Government have already said that they might introduce local lockdowns so if things continue as they are, Bolton might be one of those places. It’s a big worry for us all.’
Concerns over the spread of the variant have further increased as three-day Eid al-Fitr celebrations begin marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world.
Bolton has a large Muslim population, many of them originating from India.
Shah Ahmed, a member of a local mosque said: ‘The mosques have been making announcements telling people not to visit each other’s homes, hug and to maintain social distancing.
‘But that is going to be very hard to implement. Eid is a festival that brings families and friends together, people have had a very had year and they are going to want to celebrate in the way they traditionally do.’
Surge testing has been rolled out in Bolton and nearby Blackburn with Darwen where outbreaks have grown by 93 and 86 per cent in a week, respectively, with more than half of lab-checked cases proven to be the Indian strain.
Ray Cumberstone, 42 said: ‘We should all be worried because we don’t know how quickly this strain can spread.
‘The good thing is that the authorities have picked up on this quite quickly so I’m praying that they will be able to control it before things get out of hand.’
Nicola Sturgeon tweeted last night that officials were ‘monitoring very closely’ the Indian variant’s spread in Glasgow after cases rose above 50 per 100,000 – Scotland’s threshold for easing restrictions. Infections have doubled since the end of April.
Yesterday it was revealed that India’s Covid variant is now dominant in four local authorities in England and its rapid spread could jeopardise plans to ease lockdown.
Analysis by one of the UK’s biggest variant trackers warned the strain is focused in hotspots Bolton and neighbour Blackburn with Darwen, where outbreaks have grown by 93 and 86 per cent in a week, respectively, with more than half of lab-checked cases proven to be the Indian strain.
While Mr Eustice refused to rule out local lockdowns from next month, the Prime Minister stayed optimistic about ending lockdown, saying he expected to scrap advice for people to work from home in June and adding that he anticipated town and city centres to be ‘full of bustle again’ soon.
However he also warned that the Indian strain was ‘of increasing concern here in the UK’ and could ‘pose a potential lethal danger’.
He said: ‘The end of lockdown is not the end of the pandemic.
‘The persistent threat of new variants, should these prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of vaccines, would have the potential to cause greater suffering than we had in January.’
It came as the UK yesterday confirmed another 2,284 positive tests, up seven per cent on last Wednesday’s figure, along with 11 more deaths. Another 485,260 vaccines were given out yesterday, of which 350,000 were second doses.
Early lab trials suggest the current vaccines will still protect against the Indian variants but there are concerns that a faster rate of spread could lead to a bigger outbreak, giving more opportunities for people to get reinfected.
AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine appears to be protecting people from the Indian variant of the virus, reports suggest.
And Pfizer said in a report there was ‘no evidence’ its shot would need to be updated to fight off the current variants.
Data shows that seven out of England’s 10 Covid hotspots are in the North of England with three in the Midlands (Erewash, Bedford and North Lincolnshire), while the places where positive tests are rising fastest are scattered across the country. There are not yet conclusive links to the variant.
There are three Indian variants but only B.1.617.2 has sparked major concerns because cases have doubled in the past week, with 520 officially spotted since the first positive sample was detected in late February.
It now makes up six per cent of cases nationally, a leap from fewer than one per cent last month.
Some scientists have criticised Boris Johnson’s plan to push on with lockdown easing on Monday, warning the rising cases and spread of the Indian variant suggest he should ‘absolutely’ hit the pause button until further research is carried out on its impact on the jab.
Sanger Institute figures on the variants aim to exclude cases from international travellers and surge testing, revealing how troublesome variants spread in the community.
For this reason their data do not include every case of the Indian variant identified. It is also impossible to sequence a strain from every swab because some contain too few virus particles.
Cases in Bolton have begun to rise in recent days as the variant takes hold in the area
Blackburn with Darwen is also seeing virus cases beginning to tick up, reversing a four-month long trend of plummeting infections
Bedford, where the variant may make up more than 70 per cent of cases, is also seeing a rise
South Northamptonshire is starting to see its Covid cases rise, official data shows
Proof vaccines still work against the Indian variant? 33 fully inoculated care home staff test positive in Delhi but NONE get severely ill
AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine appears to be protecting people from the Indian variant of the virus, reports suggest.
There are concerns the Indian variants, which have started spreading in the UK, could make jabs less effective and risk vaccinated people getting sick anyway.
But in a case of 33 care home workers getting infected after vaccination in Delhi, India, none became seriously ill with the virus, the Financial Times reports.
In the UK’s second wave around one in 13 people who tested positive for the virus ended up in hospital, suggesting at least two of the 33 might have done so.
Although the figure suggests the vaccine may struggle to prevent infection, it also hints that it will stop serious Covid and death, providing massive insurance against future outbreaks.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson today admitted the Indian variant spreading in Britain, known as B1617.2, is ‘of increasing concern’ as data showed it is already dominant in at least four parts of the country – Bolton, Blackburn, Bedford and South Northamptonshire, with cases also surging in London.
Pfizer said it believes its jab will work against the strain – and SAGE advisers think it will protect against all known variants – but real-world data is lacking.
More than 36million people in the UK have had at least one dose of a vaccine and 18.4m are totally vaccinated. Most of the remaining lockdown rules are set to end next week.
Reports of people getting infected in India after vaccination have worried some corners because it suggests the strain can slip past immunity.
But experts say this is likely just a result of the sheer size of the outbreak.
Vaccines are known to fail for a small proportion of people and, the more people getting exposed to the virus, the more people this small proportion will be equal to.
For example if 1,000 vaccinated people came into contact with the coronavirus and the vaccine’s failure rate was one per cent, you would expect 100 cases.
But if a million vaccinated people encountered the virus with the same failure rate there would be 10,000 cases – but the vaccine isn’t performing any worse.
In reality the jabs are thought only to prevent 60-85 per cent of infections but more than nine out of 10 deaths.
Bolton had the most cases of the Indian variant in England over the week to April 24, their data showed. There were 47 samples spotted (55 per cent of all cases in that area).
It was followed by neighbouring Blackburn with Darwen, with lab sequencing spotting 19 genetic matches (55.7 per cent).
Ten were also found in Bedford over the same period (53.8 per cent) and five in South Northamptonshire (76.9 per cent).
But University College London mathematician Professor Christina Pagel cited other Sanger Institute data suggesting the strain may already be responsible for more than 65 per cent of cases in the hotspots.
She found 75 per cent of those in the community in Blackburn with Darwen were down to the variant, and as many as 73 per cent in Bedford and 69 per cent in Bolton.
Department of Health data shows Covid cases were ticking upwards in all three areas in the week to May 9, a reversal on a four-month trend of plummeting infections.
Surge testing was only launched in Bolton four days ago, but officials say it will take about a week before it shows up in the statistics.
Bolton has registered 707 new Covid cases over the two weeks since April 24, which means the true number of cases of the Indian variant spotted there could be in the region of 400. Cases jumped by 93 per cent in the space of a week.
There were 241 Covid cases in Bolton over the week to May 1, and 466 in the week to May 8, a surge of 93 per cent.
And Blackburn with Darwen had 229 infections over the same time period, indicating they may have more than 130 cases of the strain. This was a jump of 86 per cent.
When official data was broken down to a more granular level it showed that five of the ten worst-hit neighbourhoods in the country were in Bolton.
This is despite more than 50 per cent of people in the same postcode areas having already been vaccinated.
Dr Gabriel Scally, an epidemiologist at Bristol University and Independent SAGE member, warned the Indian variant becoming dominant in some areas was a cause for concern.
‘Its coming to dominance in the local area shows it has the potential to out-compete other strains of the virus,’ he told MailOnline.
‘It also reminds us that when lockdown ended last summer, we now know that there were several local authorities which still had high levels of virus infections. They formed the nucleus of the resurgence of the virus at the end of the summer.
‘We are in difficulty if it becomes ingrained in some local authorities, particularly if those share characteristics such as a high level of deprivation, overcrowding, BAME, because we know that all those factors are associated with transmission of the virus.’
He criticised the Prime Minister’s decision to push on with stage three of lockdown easing, which will allow pubs and restaurants to serve indoors again.
‘There is some concern the fourth test seems to be being set aside at the moment,’ he said.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, warned the Indian variant was ‘really taking off’ at present and may be sparking the rise in cases nationally.
He said: ‘In the last seven days there have been 15,895 cases reported which is a 12 per cent increase on the previous seven-day period. This represents the largest week-on-week increase since early January.
‘Looking at public data from the COG-UK website, which suggest an increasing proportion of the cases they sequence are the Indian variant B.1.617.2, this may suggest the increase in infections may be due to the spread of this variant.
‘As discussed at the Downing Street press briefing on Monday, this variant has been increasing rapidly in recent weeks.
‘There has been a lot of debate about when and if a further wave of infection will happen in the UK. The reports today suggest that this wave may have already begun.
‘That hospitalisations have yet to increase would be consistent with the view that the vaccine is still effective at reducing the risk of severe disease and gives hope that this new wave, if it indeed continues, will be less damaging to the NHS.’
This map shows the spread of the Indian variant across the UK. It is focused in key hotspots, and around Greater London
Public Health England data show how infection rates have been rising for the past fortnight in some areas of the North West and central England
More than 92% of over-65s now have signs of Covid immunity, official data shows
More than nine out of 10 over-65s in England now have signs of Covid immunity for the first time, an official survey has revealed.
Antibody testing on random members of the population shows that protection against coronavirus is now more widespread than ever as the UK’s huge vaccine rollout today extended to people in their 30s.
An Office for National Statistics report shows that 92.3 per cent of people aged 65 or older would now test positive for antibodies, which are virus-fighting proteins developed after a Covid illness or a vaccine.
These figures from April 19 mark the first time the figure has risen above 90 per cent as the country has spent the past month focusing on getting second jabs to older people 12 weeks after their first doses were given out.
Vaccines now look so effective that SAGE has suggested the next ‘wave’ of infections, expected to start from next week when most remaining lockdown rules are lifted, could be ‘very small’ if people keep social distancing.
The ONS data show that 69.3 per cent of adults in England had antibodies by April 19 – up slightly from 68.3 per cent on April 11 – along with 61 per cent in Wales, 62.5 per cent in Northern Ireland and 58 per cent in Scotland.
The report suggests 73 per cent of adults in England have had at least one vaccine dose while 27 per cent have been fully vaccinated. Government figures show 35.7million first doses have been given out and 18.4m boosters.
‘Across all four countries of the UK, there is a clear pattern between vaccination and testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies,’ the ONS said. ‘But the detection of antibodies alone is not a precise measure of the immunity protection given by vaccination.’
And Professor Pagel warned that the situation was ‘not looking good at all’ with the Indian variant. She tweeted: ‘In England, within two weeks to May 1, B.1.617.2 went from one to 11 per cent of cases. A massive increase.
She added that the roadmap should ‘absolutely’ be slowed until ‘we either know for sure it’s not more transmissible or vaccine resistant, or we’ve stamped out the outbreaks or we’ve got further in the vaccine programme’.
Speaking in the Commons, the Prime Minister stressed the need for caution and vigilance as lockdown was eased, adding that the end of restrictions was not the end of the pandemic.
‘The World Health Organization has said that the pandemic has now reached its global peak and will last throughout this year,’ he said.
‘Our own scientific advisers judge that although more positive data is coming in and the outlook is improving, there could still be another resurgence in hospitalisations and deaths.
‘We also face the persistent threat of new variants and should these prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines, they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January.’
Mr Johnson confirmed on Monday that England would be steaming ahead with easing further restrictions on May 17, in a positive sign that No10 does not consider the Indian variant to be a significant concern.
The irreversible roadmap has four tests that must be met before moving to each stage, including that the risks are not ‘fundamentally changed’ by variants and that cases are not rising in a way that risks more hospitalisations and deaths due to the virus.
From May 17 current plans will see restaurants, pubs and bars again allowed to serve customers indoors, foreign holidays permitted, and Britons allowed to have visitors indoors for the first time since last year.
Scotland has already slammed the brakes onto plans to ease restrictions in Moray when the rest of the nation takes a further step to freedom on Monday because of a growing outbreak — but this is not thought to be down to the Indian variant.
But Mr Eustice today did not rule out whack-a-mole lockdowns for some areas should cases begin to spike.
He said scientists were unsure what was driving the flare-ups in cases — predominantly in the North of England — but suggested people may have become ‘too lax’ with Covid rules, or the highly-infectious Indian variant could be driving the cases.
Asked if local restrictions could be reimposed in England to squash local outbreaks during a round of interviews today, he said: ‘We can’t rule anything out.’
The average infection rate in the UK has fallen by 15 per cent to 40.1 per 100,000 people in the fortnight up to May 4, according to latest statistics.
But analysis shows that 28 local authorities in England, four in Scotland and two in Northern Ireland are recording double the national case rate.
Quizzed about the hotspots, Mr Eustice told Sky News: ‘We are not sure what could be driving it, whether it’s particular variants that have taken hold of people being a bit too lax about restrictions that are in place.
‘We are not sure about that but we are monitoring the situation closely.’
ONS figures show that the proportion of people testing positive for coronavirus antibodies increases with age, with an average of 92.3 per cent of over-65s showing signs of immunity. [Dark blue line shows antibody positive rate, green line shows estimate of how many people have had their first vaccine dose and light blue is second vaccine doses]
Charts show how the high levels of antibodies seen in the UK’s oldest populations are being caught up by younger people as the vaccine rollout extends to lower age groups.
Asked if it meant restrictions could be imposed, he said: ‘We can’t rule anything out. We want this to be the last (lockdown) and want to avoid going back into a tiered system.
‘We know that in the end, we had to go for full lockdown.’
On local lockdowns, he added: ‘We tried that last autumn, we know that in the end we had to go for a full lockdown.’
‘We’ve got our confidence now in the vaccination programme, that’s rolling out and that is delivering…
‘It is also reducing transmission rates as well as reducing hospitalisations and mortality. ‘That’s got to be our focus.’
SAGE minutes from their meeting on May 5, and published yesterday, show Number 10’s top scientists are already raising concerns over the Indian variant.
They wrote: ‘There has been a significant recent increase in prevalence of the B.1.617.2 variant, including some community transmission.
‘PHE is currently prioritising case finding and containment for this variant.
‘Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant.’
PHE said it was monitoring the situation closely in the North West, and intervening to prevent onward transmission of the variant.
They added that all positive cases in the region are being sequenced, to look out for any future outbreaks.
Dr Andrew Furber, the regional director for public health in the North West, said: ‘The gradual easing of restrictions is going well but we must all remain alert as the more opportunities we have to meet others, the more chances the virus has to spread. We should not become complacent.’
He added: ‘Going forward, variants are likely to be part of how we live with Covid.
‘So it’s vital that we adapt and respond to the changing nature of the virus in a way that works for our region and our diverse communities.
‘Taking a targeted and community led approach has proven to effectively suppress and contain variants in other areas of the UK, so we will continue this approach as we carefully progress through the roadmap.’
Officials have also called for anyone who visited Allard’s Lounge, Tynemouth, between April 23 and May 3 to get a PCR test after the Indian variant was detected there.
PHE said ‘one of the cases in an outbreak linked to the premises has been identified as having the Indian variant.’
Wendy Burke, the area’s director of public health, sought to reassure residents, however, saying that Covid cases remained low overall.
‘We want to ensure we keep it that way and especially as we move to the next stage of the road map, with restrictions set to ease again on 17 May and allow for indoor mixing,’ she said.
‘This additional testing is really important to help to control the virus, reduce transmission and help North Tyneside return to normal.
‘We continue to work very with Public Health England to monitor outbreaks, especially as variant cases begin to circulate across the country.’
A Belgian scientist has claimed the Indian Covid variant that is surging in Britain could spread up to 60 per cent faster than the dominant Kent strain.
Professor Tom Wenseleers, a biologist and biostatistician at the KU Leuven university, said on Twitter he had analysed how the two strains compared and found the Indian variant to be faster spreading.
The B1617.2 variant is the most common version of the Indian strain in the UK – it has been spotted at least 520 times and experts fear it could take over as the dominant version of coronavirus.
Scientists on the SAGE Government advisory panel said in a meeting last week: ‘Early indications, including from international experience, are that this variant may be more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 [Kent] variant.’
And chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty said at a Downing Street briefing last night: ‘Our view is that this is a highly transmissible variant, at least as transmissible as the B117 variant.
‘It is possible it is more transmissible but we’ll have to see.’
In a tweet posted yesterday Professor Wenseleers, who has published other papers on Covid variants including one about the Kent strain in the journal Science, said: ‘The Indian data estimates that B.1.617.2 has a 10% per day growth [advantage] over B.1.1.7 (translates to a ~60% transmission advantage).’
He posted graphs showing that the variant had rapidly pushed aside other types of the virus in parts of India including Maharashtra, Gujarat and West Bengal, where it is believed to be linked to an explosion in cases.
UK data also suggest that the variant is surging in Britain, accounting for an increasing proportion of cases and up to 40 per cent in London.
Professor Pagel said it may be ‘outcompeting’ the Kent variant and Public Health England admitted it ‘may have replaced it to some extent’.
It comes as it was revealed today that Spain will not demand any British holidaymaker presents a covid passport or proof of a negative test on arrival from May 20.
But with no sign of the UK adding the country to its ‘green list’ of destinations, travellers will still have to self-isolate for ten days when they get home and at least two PCR tests.
British holidaymakers will be able to freely enter the country from next week as long as the UK’s Covid infection rate remains below 50 cases per 100,000 people. It is currently at 21.3.
Spain will remain on Britain’s ‘amber list’ of destinations until at least June 7, when the Government carries out its next review, but experts are predicting it may not go green until the end of June at the earliest.
That means that any Briton heading there before then has to quarantine for 10 days at home on return and take two PCR tests on days two and eight of their self-isolation.
It came as Greece said it was confident it would go green on June 7, with tourism minister Haris Theoharis saying they were ‘disappointed’ not to be on the list with Portugal from Monday, May 17.
Green list status means Britons returning from those 12 countries don’t have to quarantine but must have a negative lateral flow test in the 72 hours before they return home and a PCR test on day 2 after they get back.