PHE figures show Covid outbreak is STILL flat despite rapid spread of Indian variant

71 mins read


Britain’s coronavirus outbreak is still flat despite the rapid spread of the Indian variant and a SAGE adviser warning the third wave may have already begun, official figures revealed today. 

Public Health England bosses hailed ‘hugely encouraging’ data that showed cases remained ‘stable’ nationally at around 12,000 last week, and dropped in all age groups except 5 to 9-year-olds.

Hospitalisations with the virus also fell across the country, while infection rates dipped in every region except the North West, which is struggling against an outbreak of the Indian strain.

Some 95 out of 149 local authorities — or 64 per cent —saw their Covid cases dip last week. For comparison, there were 66 that recorded a drop over the previous seven-day spell. 

But Dr Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director, said the agency was concerned about the Indian variant and was ‘constantly monitoring the situation’. She added: ‘Until we know more it’s vital we don’t let our guard down too soon and remain cautious. We do not want to undo the huge progress we’ve made so far.’

Separate figures from the PHE’s weekly surveillance report showed the ten areas with the biggest Covid outbreaks were all hotspots for the Indian variant. And the NHS trust in Bolton — one of the hotspots for the mutant strain — has had to open another ward for Covid patients after a small rise in admissions, it was claimed today.

It came as SAGE adviser and University College London epidemiologist Professor Andrew Hayward today claimed the UK was at the beginning of another wave because of the rapid spread of the mutant strain. 

‘Although it was originally imported through travel to India it spread fairly effectively first of all within households after that and now more broadly within communities,’ he told BBC Breakfast. ‘So I don’t really see why it wouldn’t continue to spread in other parts of the country.’

He added: ‘Obviously we are doing everything we can to contain that, but it is likely more generalised measures may start to be needed to control it.’  

But Professor Hayward’s comments come amid growing optimism from Number 10 that the Indian variant won’t jeopardise plans to ease all lockdown restrictions on June 21, despite fears the highly-transmissible strain could scupper ‘freedom day’.

Boris Johnson last night told the powerful 1922 committee of Tory MPs he was ‘even more cautiously optimistic’ the next stage of relaxation can go ahead. He said: ‘I know there are anxieties about new variants but we can see nothing to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map.’

And more promising figures from King’s College London’s symptom-tracking app also predicted Covid cases are not rising nationally, despite surging infections in hotspots. Experts estimated around 2,750 people are falling ill with the coronavirus every day across the UK, with the figure having barely changed in a week.

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist who leads the app, said B.1.617.2 ‘hasn’t altered numbers significantly’ and outbreaks remain focused in hotspots, such as Bolton. ‘While the outbreaks remain localised and UK numbers are steady and most cases appear mild, it’s highly unlikely to cause the NHS to be overrun or stop us coming out of lockdown,’ he said. 

Britain today also recorded just seven Covid deaths as the fatality toll continues to drop. Meanwhile, infections are flat with another 2,874 positive tests recorded. For comparison, 11 deaths and 2,657 cases were posted this time last week.

SAGE scientists have always warned there would be a third wave of the pandemic once restrictions were eased and more people were allowed to mix. 

But questions remain over how big the outbreak will be because vaccines will stop many people from catching the disease and being hospitalised. Government advisers don’t believe the resurgence will be anywhere near as bad as January’s crisis because of jabs and warmer weather.

Almost 3,000 cases of the Indian variant have been detected in the UK, with the figure having quadrupled in a fortnight. Surge testing has been deployed in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester and North Tyneside to root out cases of the strain.

It comes as ministers accelerate the vaccination roll-out with plans to reach all over-18s within a month, with over-30s set to be offered their first dose by the end of May. More than 36.9million Britons — or seven in ten adults — have already had at least a jab. England’s roll-out was expanded to 34 and 35-year-olds today.  

Cases of a coronavirus variant first detected in India are rising in the UK, potentially threatening the lockdown-easing roadmap

Public Health England figures show 95 out of 149 local authorities — or 64 per cent —saw their Covid cases dip last week. For comparison, there were 66 that recorded a drop over the previous seven-day spell

Public Health England data showed Covid cases remained flat last week despite surging infections with the Indian variant

Public Health England data showed Covid cases remained flat last week despite surging infections with the Indian variant

They found weekly hospitalisations due to the virus also fell again and those due to influenza remained flat

They found weekly hospitalisations due to the virus also fell again and those due to influenza remained flat 

Covid cases dropped in every age group except 5 to 9-year-olds last week, Public Health England data showed

Covid cases dropped in every age group except 5 to 9-year-olds last week, Public Health England data showed

And Covid cases dipped in every region except the North West which is battling a large outbreak of the Indian strain

And Covid cases dipped in every region except the North West which is battling a large outbreak of the Indian strain

ZOE and King's College London's symptom tracking app estimated there were 2,750 new cases of the virus every day, the equivalent of one in 1,796 Britons suffering symptomatic Covid in the week to May 15. They said this was not a significant change from last week. Their data was published yesterday

ZOE and King’s College London’s symptom tracking app estimated there were 2,750 new cases of the virus every day, the equivalent of one in 1,796 Britons suffering symptomatic Covid in the week to May 15. They said this was not a significant change from last week. Professor Tim Spector said the Indian variant ‘hasn’t altered the numbers significantly

Professor Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London and SAGE adviser, warned today Britain's third wave had already begun. But his comments came just hours before separate data from King's College London estimated Covid cases are still flat despite surging infections with the variant.

Professor Tim Spector said data showed outbreaks of the variant remained localised and there was no sign at present that it would overwhelm the NHS

Professor Andrew Hayward (left), an epidemiologist at University College London and SAGE adviser, warned today Britain’s third wave had already begun. But his comments came just hours before separate data from King’s College London estimated Covid cases are still flat despite surging infections with the variant. Professor Tim Spector (right) said data showed outbreaks of the variant remained localised and there was no sign at present that it would overwhelm the NHS

Boris Johnson told the powerful 1922 committee of Tory MPs last night 'we can see nothing to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map'. He added he was 'increasingly optimistic' that the current crop of vaccines could still beat the strain. Officials suggest the roadmap won't be delayed. The Prime Minister is pictured today outside Downing Street

Matt Hancock (pictured today outside Downing Street) told a Downing Street press conference last night that no decision on whether to continue with June 21 easings would be taken until next month

Boris Johnson told the powerful 1922 committee of Tory MPs last night ‘we can see nothing to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map’. He added he was ‘increasingly optimistic’ that the current crop of vaccines could still beat the strain. Officials suggest the roadmap won’t be delayed. The Prime Minister is pictured today outside Downing Street

Two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are up to 90 per cent effective against symptomatic Covid 

Two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are up to 90 per cent effective against symptomatic Covid, according to official estimates.

Public Health England found it was just as effective as Pfizer’s jab.

Britain has relied on both jabs for its vaccines roll-out since December, which has covered more than 37million people, or 70 per cent of adults.

The medical regulator says 23.9million first doses and 9million second doses of the AstraZeneca jab had been dished out by May 12.

A further 11.7million first and 9.9million second shots of the Pfizer jab had also been administered by this time.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi hailed the data as highlighting the ‘incredible impact’ both doses had.

PHE warned their figures were primarily based on older adults, who were first in line to get both doses because they are most at risk of hospitalisation and death if they catch the virus.

It gave no figures for how effective the AstraZeneca jab was at preventing hospitalisation and death sparked by the virus after two doses.

But in clinical trials involving almost 25,000 people the shot was found to be 100 per cent effective at stopping these from happening.

Pfizer’s vaccine was 90 to 95 per cent effective at stopping Covid hospitalisations and 95 to 99 per cent effective at stopping death in the community, PHE said.

Their scientists also found there was a small reduction in vaccine effectiveness 10 weeks after the second jab for Pfizer recipients. But there was no change for those who got AstraZeneca’s jab.

Whitehall insiders say the ‘mood music has definitely improved’ in the face of fresh evidence which suggests the current crop of vaccines work against the mutant strain. 

SAGE advisers also believe it may now be just 30 per cent more contagious than the Kent variant which triggered the UK’s devastating second wave, which started in the South East before rapidly spreading across the country. 

One senior official told Sky News the updated transmissibility estimate would allow the unlocking to go ahead. Matt Hancock said last night no decision on relaxing the final set of restrictions will be made until June 14.

But the plans could still be diluted — which could see the end of social distancing, mask wearing and working from home guidance pushed back to a later date. Ministers are also considering asking high-risk venues such as nightclubs to ensure people are either vaccinated or tested before they enter.  

Flat hospital and death rates in Bolton are first sign jabs work well and NHS won’t be overwhelmed by Indian variant, experts say

The Covid outbreak in Bolton may be the first sign that the NHS won’t be overwhelmed by the Indian variant, scientists say.

The mutant B.1.617.2 strain is dominant in the Greater Manchester borough, and is behind a huge spike in cases that has made it the UK’s Covid capital.

Infections have almost soared to levels seen during January’s second wave, with around 150 positive tests now being reported every day compared to fewer than 20 in April.

The town’s infection rate has doubled to 283 per 100,000 people in a week – but a huge testing drive means far more people are being regular checked for the disease.

The surge in cases has yet to translate into an uptick in Covid hospitalisations, with just one person on average being admitted each day.

Deaths also remain flat with just two fatalities recorded in May.

Infections in Bolton have almost soared to levels seen during January's second wave, with around 150 positive tests now being reported every day compared to fewer than 20 in April

Infections in Bolton have almost soared to levels seen during January’s second wave, with around 150 positive tests now being reported every day compared to fewer than 20 in April

The surge in cases has yet to translate into an uptick in Covid hospitalisations, with just one person on average being admitted each day

The surge in cases has yet to translate into an uptick in Covid hospitalisations, with just one person on average being admitted each day

Deaths also remain flat with just two fatalities recorded in May

Deaths also remain flat with just two fatalities recorded in May

Dr Simon Clarke, a molecular biologist from Reading University, said this was confirmation that the jabs protect well against the strain.

An upbeat Matt Hancock led a Downing Street press conference last night where he claimed the Government had ‘increasing confidence’ the vaccines were highly effective against the Indian variant. 

He had echoed comments made by Boris Johnson earlier in the House of Commons, who said he’d been presented promising data highlighting the strength of the jabs. 

Dr Clarke told MailOnline: ‘They [the Government] will be looking at these hospital rates in Bolton and they seem to be very comfortable about them.

‘So I don’t think it [the variant] is going to be the disaster some people thought at first.’

He urged people to continue taking precautions and not get too lax with the rules.

‘Just because the vaccines work against the strain, I think we always knew that was going to be the case.

‘What we don’t really know is whether the jabs will be just as effective against the Indian variant as they are the Kent one.

‘So I think focusing n the top efficacy numbers can sometimes give people false confidence.’

Bolton’s outbreak is mainly being driven by younger people, who face only a tiny risk of dying or falling severely ill with Covid.

Government scientists have said the spread appears to be predominantly happening within South Asian communities in the town, who are more likely to live in multigenerational households and in high density housing.

The fact infection rates remain low in elderly age groups may be further proof that the vaccines are preventing younger people passing it on to senior relatives, Dr Clarke said.  

However there has been a recent uptick in case rates in people in over 60, with about 43 cases per 100,000 people according to the most recent count. For comparison, the rate is believed to be about 300 for teenagers aged 15 to 19.

As it stands, a total of 156,927 people have been vaccinated in Bolton, of which 89,137 have been fully immunised

As it stands, a total of 156,927 people have been vaccinated in Bolton, of which 89,137 have been fully immunised

Ministers will be keeping a close eye on whether the rate in the over-60s rises rapidly or begin to translate into hospitalisations. 

It can take several weeks for people to fall severely ill with the disease after catching it.  

As it stands, a total of 156,927 people have been vaccinated in Bolton, of which 89,137 have been fully immunised.

Latest NHS England figures suggest 81 per cent of over-40s in Bolton have accepted their jab, which is on par with the national average. 

Ministers yesterday offered hope that England’s June 21 lockdown-easing plans were still able to go ahead because of fresh evidence that vaccines work against B.1.617.2.

No10’s official spokesperson said the optimism was based on daily figures, such as hospital admissions and testing rates. But they warned it could take time before the Government was confident that ‘freedom day’ can still go ahead as planned.

 

In other Covid developments today:

  • Prince William, 38, rolled up his sleeves (and flashes a ripped bicep) to receive his first dose of the jab;
  • Home Secretary Priti Patel unveiled plans for up to 10,00 quarantine checks on holidaymakers every day to make sure Brits are self-isolating;
  • Figures suggested up to 270,000 Britons are set to fly to amber list country in five days despite ministers saying people should only travel to medium risk countries in ‘extreme circumstances’; 
  • A Government adviser said Britain could hit herd immunity through its vaccination drive alone and will not need to jab children;
  • India’s Covid variant has already spread to 48 countries and is in every continent except Antarctica;
  • Health chiefs gear up for autumn Covid vaccine booster drive as No10 launches trial testing seven different jabs as top-up shots. 

PHE publishes a weekly surveillance report tracking the spread of the virus across the country.

They found the infection rate had fallen in almost every age group. It was highest among 10 to 19-year-olds (43.9 cases per 100,000 people) and lowest among the over-70s (4.1) who have each been offered at least one dose of the Covid vaccine.

Hospitalisations with the virus also dipped nationally from 1.02 to 0.73 per 100,000 people.

Bolton — which is struggling against the country’s largest outbreak of the Indian variant — has the highest Covid case rate in England (328.3).

Its neighbour Blackburn with Darwen has the second highest rate (159.7), followed by Bedford (124.65). 

Kirklees had the fourth highest infection rate (73.4) after cases rose by 30 per cent in a week. The council has been identified as an ‘area of concern’ by public health authorities after cases of the Indian variant were identified there. Surge testing was launched in the area yesterday.

It was followed by Leicester (50), Hounslow (48.9), Manchester (44.1), Bury (42.9), North Tyneside (42.3) and Luton (42.2) which all have outbreaks of the Indian variant.

SAGE scientists have already warned there will be a third wave of the virus in the country, which was expected to hit as more restrictions were eased.

Professor Hayward said: ‘While I think we’ve always thought we would have another wave of Covid, the size of that wave is going to very much depend on how transmissible the variant that causes it is and what proportion of the population have been vaccinated when it hits.’

He added surge testing had been launched in hotspots in an attempt to halt the spread of the variant.

But that spiralling cases suggested it would become the main variant across the country — and displace the currently dominant Kent variant. 

‘But the scale of this is different (to other variants) and the number of places affected is different and the number of cases is different and the speed of increase is different,’ he said. 

‘So my hunch is that this is going to become the dominant strain across the country, maybe even across the world, and that you know that really brings it back down to this race against the vaccine and the virus except the virus just got faster.’ 

The Indian variant has already spread to at least 48 countries, figures show, and has been spotted on every continent except Antarctica.

It is now behind one in five infections in the UK and has spread to 40 per cent of local authorities in England.

But King’s College London experts say cases nationwide are still flat, and that outbreaks remain localised in areas such as Bolton and Blackburn.

Professor Spector said: ‘There has been no significant change in rates of Covid from last week according to ZOE Covid Study data. 

‘The number of daily new cases is around 2,750, which remains fairly low and virtually unchanged from last week. This shows that the Indian variant hasn’t altered the numbers significantly 

‘We’re monitoring the Indian variant closely and so far we see only localised outbreaks, or hotspots. 

‘Not only in Bedford and Bolton, which we saw a week ago, but our data shows Newport in Wales, Glasgow and neighbouring areas like East Dunbartonshire or Lanarkshire in Scotland, Aberdeen, Leeds and neighbouring authorities like Kirklees and Wakefield.

‘We noticed the same trend previously with outbreaks of the South African and Brazilian variants, but these remained local and didn’t translate into wider cases countrywide.’ 

He added: ‘There’s no clear evidence yet that the new Indian variant is significantly worse than the old Kent one. 

‘While the outbreaks remain localised and UK numbers are steady and most cases appear mild, it’s highly unlikely to cause the NHS to be overrun or stop us coming out of lockdown.

‘So no need to panic, but do stay vigilant and keep logging with the ZOE Covid Study app to stay ahead of the curve and help us monitor outbreaks like these.’

However, the Kent variant — which triggered Britain’s second wave — began in the South East before it rapidly spiralled out of control and hit every part of the country. 

The King’s College London estimates rely on daily reports from more than 700,000 Britons on whether they are feeling unwell, what symptoms they have and if they have tested positive for Covid.

But it is only able to pick up infections which trigger symptoms and misses asymptomatic cases — those which spark no tell tale signs of the virus — which officials estimate could be behind a third of all cases.

The app updated how its estimates are calculated last week because a large proportion of participants had already been vaccinated against the virus.

The Prime Minister told the 1922 committee last night, reports The Times, that he was confident the planned June 21 easing could still go ahead.

‘I know there are anxieties about new variants,’ he said. ‘But we can see nothing to suggest that we have to deviate from the roadmap.’

He added earlier in the day that there was ‘increasing confidence’ jabs are highly effective against all variants, including B.1.617.2. His comments are bolstered by the fact the emergence of the strain has not yet led to an uptick in hospital admissions or deaths. 

Scientists say the Indian variant may not be as transmissible as first feared because official data is beginning to hint the rise in cases of the mutant strain is slowing. 

They say the spike could be down to the virus spreading in multi-generational households, and people rushing home from India after the country was placed on the ‘red list’. 

Professor Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine at Oxford University, told the Telegraph: ‘How can it be the case that it is 40 per cent more transmissible when the numbers are falling off at the speed they are in India?

‘We could be looking at a founder effect (when a strain is repeatedly imported from another outbreak area) and where you’ve got a small number of people having a bigger impact.

‘India is actually looking more like the natural curve which happens in winter and has a high drop-off as opposed to flattening the curve.’

India’s cases have dropped by 27 per cent in a week. They recorded 267,334 on Tuesday, down from 348,421 cases at the same time last week. 

England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Van-Tam said last night: ‘We have a credible range that goes from a few percent more transmissible through to… 50 per cent more transmissible. I think most people feel it is going to be somewhere in the middle, rather than at the extremes of that band.’ 

Top scientists handed information to ministers last night which put the situation ‘looking in better shape’, a senior Government official told Politico, although they were ‘obviously still waiting for more data’.

A health official added: ‘We are learning more about the variant almost every hour and the mood music has definitely improved’.

SAGE models warn Covid hospitalisations could spiral to more than 20,000 a day if the June easings went ahead and the strain was found to be 50 per cent more transmissible. Government advisers also warned a variant that is 30 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant could pile more pressure on the NHS than it suffered during the first wave last spring.

ZOE Covid Symptom Study map shows the spread of the virus across the country

ZOE Covid Symptom Study map shows the spread of the virus across the country

The Prime Minister told MPs in the Commons yesterday that the jabs were also still fighting off the mutant strain, saying he had ‘increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant’.

One senior minister told Sky News that Mr Johnson would ‘move heaven and earth’ in order to stick to the June 21 unlocking moment.

Another added it would be politically ‘very bad’ to miss the deadline. ‘We told people in December the vaccine would be our way out of this and this would be our final heave,’ they said. ‘To go back on that would be very difficult.’

While cases of the new strain have quadrupled in the last fortnight in Britain, hospitalisations of people with Covid have remained ‘fairly flat’ compared to previous spikes. Covid deaths are now averaging around eight a day.

Top experts say this is a key signal that the vaccines are working. Clinical studies showed they were up to 100 per cent effective at preventing hospitalisations and deaths with the virus.

Nearly 90% of 7,000 neighbourhoods in England and Wales saw NO Covid deaths in April 

England and Wales’ rapidly shrinking Covid outbreaks were today laid bare by an interactive map that showed nearly 90 per cent of more than 7,000 neighbourhoods saw no deaths from the virus last month.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data reveal April was the first month since August 2020 where the number of deaths was below the five-year average, with fewer than 1,000 virus-linked fatalities.

The overall death rate in England — 851.2 per 100,000 people — was the lowest rate for April since the ONS started recording mortality rates in 2001. 

MailOnline analysis shows the proportion of English and Welsh neighbourhoods with zero deaths increased from 57.9 per cent in March to 87.6 per cent last month — some 6,301 areas.

Just ten areas saw three deaths each, which was the highest amount for any postcode. 

They were: Hounslow West in London, Summerfield in Birmingham, Woodthorpe and Arno Vale in Gedling, Great Sankey in Warrington, Birley in Sheffield, Stornton and Sixfields in Northampton, Grimsargh and Goosnargh in Preston, Rusper, Faygate and Leechpool in Horsham, Bridlington West in East Riding and Canvey Island South West in Castle Point.

The ONS data also revealed that Covid was just the ninth leading cause of death in England last month — its lowest ranking since September 2020. Heart disease and dementia were the leading killers.

A total of 941 deaths were due to coronavirus in April, the equivalent of 2.4 per cent of all deaths registered in England. Another 35 were recorded in Wales. 

Deaths have plunged over the past few months because of both strict lockdown restrictions and the mammoth vaccination drive, which has seen almost 37million adults jabbed.

 

Official data shows cases of the strain are also concentrated in younger age groups, which have yet to be offered the Covid vaccine.

In hotspot for the Indian strain Bolton, the vast majority of patients in hospital suffering from the virus did not get their Covid vaccines despite being eligible.

But the Independent today claimed that the local trust has had not open extra Covid ward because of a small rise in admissions. The news site claimed 30 beds are now being taken up by the infected, up from 25 yesterday. The most recent data from NHS England shows the figure stood at just 18 on May 11.

It can take patients a week or longer to fall severely ill enough to need hospital treatment.

The Health Secretary urged Britons to keep coming forward for their jabs yesterday, saying it was the best way to get out of the pandemic. 

He said: ‘This is on all of us, we are masters of our own fate. We are seeing the vast majority of cases, both of the existing variant and of the B.1.617.2 variant, amongst younger groups and unvaccinated people.

He added: ‘On the one hand hand that is actually a good sign as it implies the vaccine is working effectively, but obviously we don’t want to see a huge increase in the number of cases everywhere.’ 

Vaccines are turning the tide against this pandemic and I’m incredibly proud the UK has one of the highest uptake rates in the world, with 90 per cent of people saying that they have had or will have the jab.

‘Strong evidence shows the vaccines protect you and your loved ones from serious illness, and they also reduce transmission, which is why we’ve introduced additional surge measures in the areas with rising cases of the variant first identified in India,’ Mr Hancock said.

He added: ‘Thank you to everybody who has come forward so far – we can beat this virus together if we all play our part and get the jab as soon as we’re eligible.’

Professor Ferguson said yesterday the spike in cases in the North West may be down to infections spreading rapidly in large, multi-generational households in densely populated areas.

‘There’s a glimmer of hope from the recent data that while the virus does appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a lot.’ 

His comments were echoed by deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who described Britain’s situation as a ‘straight race’ between the vaccination programme and the new strain. 

He added: ‘The NHS is doing everything it can to turbo-boost that, and that is the challenge that’s ahead of us in the next two to three to four weeks, to make sure that we outrun the virus through really vigorous pull-through on vaccine delivery.’ 

A Warwick University model of a more infectious variant after lockdown is completely lifted on June 21 suggests that any more than a 30 per cent increase in transmissibility compared to the Kent variant could lead to an August peak of daily hospital admissions that is higher than either the first or second wave. In a worst-case scenario with a variant 50 per cent more transmissible, hospital admissions could surge to 10,000 per day or even double that  (Thick lines indicate the central estimate while the thin lines are possible upper limits known as confidence intervals)

Officials say the Indian variant of Covid may have spread rapidly in the UK because it got into multi-generational households, and there were a large number of imports as people rushed home after India was added to the 'red list'

Officials say the Indian variant of Covid may have spread rapidly in the UK because it got into multi-generational households, and there were a large number of imports as people rushed home after India was added to the ‘red list’

The above graph is based on Sanger Institute data on cases identified in the community. It shows that while the Kent variant (B.1.1.7) remains dominant in the country, infections with the Indian variant (B.1.617.2) are rising rapidly. In the week to April 24 it made up barely three per cent of all infections spotted, but by May 8 it was behind 27 per cent

The above graph is based on Sanger Institute data on cases identified in the community. It shows that while the Kent variant (B.1.1.7) remains dominant in the country, infections with the Indian variant (B.1.617.2) are rising rapidly. In the week to April 24 it made up barely three per cent of all infections spotted, but by May 8 it was behind 27 per cent

Britain can reach herd immunity against Covid and may not need to vaccinate children, top adviser says

Britain can reach herd immunity against coronavirus through vaccines and may not need to jab children, a top vaccinologist says. 

Professor Adam Finn, who sits on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said current plans excluded children because they very rarely got seriously ill if they caught the virus.

The Bristol University expert added it may be possible to reach herd immunity – when the virus stops spreading in the population because enough people have antibodies to fight it off –  by only inoculating adults.

Experts have suggested around 65 to 75 per cent of people in Britain – or 43 to 49million people – will need to have protection to reach this state.

The Pfizer vaccine is currently being tested in children. There is no evidence that it would cause any serious side-effects in the age group.

But scientists are concerned over ethical considerations, as children would be jabbed for the benefit of others because they are at very low risk from the virus. 

Professor Finn told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was still ‘undecided’ whether children would also be asked to be vaccinated. 

‘I don’t think it’s been ruled out, but I do think that we’re clear that the main priority at the moment is to try and immunise as many people as possible who are at risk of getting really sick with this virus, because that’s the one thing we want to avoid is another big surge of hospitalisations and deaths,’ he said.

‘That isn’t going to happen in children because fortunately one of the few good things about this pandemic is children are very rarely seriously affected by this infection.’

Asked about children spreading the virus, he said: ‘Well actually the evidence we’ve got with children, particularly young children, is that they are not very infectious to each other or to adults around them, and that the majority of the transmission of the infection is in the adult population in fact.

‘Because we’ve immunised so many older adults, that’s now tending to be in younger adults, and there is a certain amount of transmission going on in secondary school so in teenagers, but in fact we’ve been surprised about how little transmission we’ve picked up in schools and of course this time around, there’s been a lot more testing and awareness of what’s going on in schools.’

On the ethics of vaccinating young people in the UK when adults are dying abroad, Professor Finn said: ‘Well there is the global perspective but even if we just look at it as a domestic issue, I think in normal times, just as in pandemic times, we simply wouldn’t want to immunise anybody without needing to. 

‘It’s an invasive thing to do, it costs money and it causes a certain amount of discomfort, and vaccines have side-effects, so if we can control this virus without immunising children we shouldn’t immunise children as a matter of principle.’

He said he was ‘optimistic that we are, in particularly in the UK with the high coverage we’re achieving, and the extremely effective vaccines we’ve got, that we can achieve population immunity, and I’m afraid it’s an open question as to whether we need to immunise any children at all. And if we do, how many children we need to immunise.’

Trials of Covid booster shots were also announced at last night’s press briefing, as ministers gear up to offer third doses to all over-50s this autumn. 

Southampton University scientists will recruit thousands of fully-vaccinated Britons to the study, which will test seven Covid vaccines as part of the world’s first clinical trial into booster shots. 

Mr Hancock said he was ‘delighted’ and that the tests will ‘shape the plans for our booster programme later this year’, adding: ‘We will do everything we can to future-proof this country from pandemics.’ 

Professor Van-Tam advised people in Covid hotspots to ‘think carefully’ about using the new freedoms they have this week. 

When asked if he would advise people in areas such as Bolton with high coronavirus rates against taking advantage of new freedoms, he said: ‘I would advise the residents in those areas to think very carefully about the freedoms they have, weigh up the risks and be very cautious. 

‘It is possible to do something outside, better to do it outside. If it is possible to do something with smaller numbers, with people you know rather than multiple new contacts, it’s better to do that. Take it steady.

‘The Government has given people freedoms to start to make these judgements for themselves and I understand that we can’t live for years and years on end with rules, people will have to learn to manage these risks from Covid for themselves because this is not going to go away in the short term, medium term and probably the long term.’ 

Mr Hancock told the press conference: ‘Overall hospitalisations and deaths remain very low, meaning we have been able to carefully take away more restrictions this week as we’ve taken step three of the road map.

‘But we must proceed with vigilance and with everyone taking personal responsibility.

‘We’ve always known that one of the things that has the potential to knock us off track would be a new variant.

‘That’s why we made the presence of a new variant that could do that one of our four tests when we set out the road map, which is the tests we must pass for going down each step of the road map.

‘The early evidence suggests that the B1617.2 new variant, first discovered in India, passes on more easily from person to person than the B11.7 variant that was first discovered in Kent.

‘But as the Prime Minister said at lunch time, we have increasing confidence that the vaccines are effective against it.

‘That means that our strategy is the right one – to carefully replace restrictions on freedom with the protection from the vaccine.’

Mr Hancock revealed that the case rate in Indian variant hotspot Bolton was 283 per 100,000, after doubling in a week. He said 25 people were currently in Bolton’s hospitals with the strain, of which the ‘majority’ were unvaccinated. 

Among those that had been jabbed, 90 per cent had not been given both. Mr Hancock said: ‘This shows the importance of getting vaccinated – not once, but twice.’  

The latest figures came as the Government under fresh criticism for taking too long to ban travel from India, as Labour yesterday claimed the border had been ‘like a sieve’ throughout the pandemic.  

Despite the threat of the Indian variant to the UK only being made public last week, reports yesterday said the Government was warned about the danger it posed to the UK four weeks ago.

At that time, the strain was already decimating hospitals in India’s major cities and yet thousands of travellers were still flying into Britain from the country every week.

Ministers met for crisis talks two weeks later to thrash out plans to deal with the strain, with some advisors warning against going ahead with stage three of the roadmap, Sky News reports. 

The Indian variant has already spread to at least four in 10 areas of England and accounts for one in five new infections since being imported to the UK in late March.   

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

Green light for the amber list in a FORTNIGHT? Grant Shapps says list of restriction-free holidays to places like France, Spain, Italy and Greece could expand as early as June

Grant Shapps today hinted that the ‘green list’ could be expanded within weeks amid mounting pressure for France, Spain, Italy and Greece to be added.

The Transport Secretary delivered an optimistic message about the prospects for summer travel as he defended the government’s traffic light system – despite fury that it has caused confusion and chaos.

He urged people to be ‘patient’ rather than booking trips to ‘amber’ rated destinations – suggesting the roster of places classed as safe to visit is on track to get longer when it is reviewed at the start of next month.

The positive signs came amid calls for countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Greece to be added to the ‘green list’, with warnings that the UK travel industry is being left behind as Europe reopens.

Despite a series of ministers warning that people should not be going to amber-rated countries for holidays yet, hundreds of thousands of people have been braving quarantine and testing requirements to go anyway.

And millions more are believed to have gambled by booking trips to popular locations later in the summer.

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren complained today that the government has been using polls and focus groups to make decisions rather than following the evidence, arguing that more mainstream holiday hotspots should be on the green list along with Portugal.

‘We have looked at the data that is available and the scientific evidence shows that you have a number of countries in Europe that are now on the amber list that should go into the green list,’ he said.

‘You can see that that is happening in Europe as we speak. European travel is opening up at large scale.’

However, despite the hopeful words from Mr Shapps it is unclear the basis on which the EU will be willing to receive UK tourists.

The bloc’s ambassadors agreed yesterday that people who have received both vaccine jabs should be allowed without quarantine or testing restrictions, but there are doubts over whether that will apply to non-vaccinated Brits.

Mr Johnson tried to strike a positive tone at PMQs yesterday, saying he had looked at the data again this morning and there was ‘increasing confidence’ that vaccines work against ‘all variants, including the Indian variant’. 

Asked by Labour leader Keir Starmer whether mutant strains was the biggest risk for the loosening, Mr Johnson said: ‘I certainly think that is one of the issues that we must face.’

He added: ‘We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the House we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.’  

Asked about what data the PM has seen to make his ‘increasing confidence’ comment, a No10 spokesperson said: ‘We have regular data that is published daily that tracks through right down to a very granular level on things like case rates.

‘That is the information that the Prime Minister is seeing. 

‘Currently in that data we are not seeing any sharp increases or significant areas of concern.

‘Clearly it is important to stress that we want to give more time to get more data in so we can make decisions on our approach on the next step.’ 

They added data includes hospitalisation rates, case rates, positivity rates ‘and a number of studies published here and around the world which continue to show high levels of efficacy against variants’.

Pressed during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for his ‘hunch’ about whether the next stage of the roadmap would go ahead on schedule, Prof Ferguson said: ‘I think that is being actively considered. 

‘It is very much in the balance. The data collected in the next two-three weeks will determine that.’  

He said it was not yet clear how much more transmissible the Indian variant is, but added: ‘Certainly, it is much easier to deal with 20 per cent, even 30 per cent (more transmissibility) than it would be 50 per cent or more.’

During a round of interviews this morning, Professor Ferguson said data had suggested the current jabs were less effective at stopping people from catching the mutant virus.

He claimed the Government’s scientists were ‘slightly concerned’ this could give the surging strain more opportunity to spread to vulnerable and unvaccinated groups.

But Professor Ferguson insisted there was a ‘good deal of confidence’ among SAGE that the vaccines will protect against severe disease and death, which would be crucial in protecting the NHS in the event of a third wave.

Asked about the Indian variant’s effect on vaccines, Professor Ferguson told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: ‘It is something which is being studied very carefully. 

‘There’s a good deal of confidence, and the data is being gathered, that the vaccines will protect against severe disease. 

‘The effect of the Indian variant on the vaccines will be fairly marginal in terms of the protection against severe disease, so the vaccines protect individuals. 

‘The thing we’re slightly concerned about is whether there’s an impact on the ability of vaccines to prevent infection or mild disease and, therefore, prevent transmission in the community. 

‘There are some hints, and it’s not vaccine-specific at the moment, in the data of reduced vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission, but we really have to wait as more data is gathered to be definitive about that. 

‘But of course it’s a concern because, if we don’t have the same action of vaccine at blocking transmission, it’s another way for the virus to amplify itself in the community.’  

Even though the vaccines seem likely to prevent severe illness, there are fears that the new variant could spill into the 30million Britons who have still to get their jab.

There are also a very small number of people for whom the vaccines will not work, because the person is very frail or has a weakened immune system. 

Professor Ferguson revealed that, since SAGE’s warning about the Indian variant last week, there was new data which suggested the strain could be less infectious than first feared.

He said the data was still uncertain because scientists are trying to disentangle whether the virus is extremely transmissible or whether there are behavioral and social factors at play.

Professor Ferguson added: ‘To explain to people why this is difficult [to work out exactly how infectious it is]… It’s because of how it was introduced into the country, it was introduced from overseas, principally into people with Indian ethnicity – who are at a higher chance of living in multi-generational households and often in quite deprived areas in high density housing.

‘So we’re trying to work out whether the rapid growth we’ve seen in Bolton is going to be typical of what we can expect elsewhere.

The growing red sections on graphs represent Indian variant cases surging in local authorities where it could be taking off. In these places it can already be seen edging out the Kent strain (orange) and scientists fear this suggests it is more infectious and could take over as the number one type of the virus in the UK. Note: Some areas, such as Stevenage, Broxbourne and Oadby are recording very few cases of the virus so changes may not constitute a trend

The growing red sections on graphs represent Indian variant cases surging in local authorities where it could be taking off. In these places it can already be seen edging out the Kent strain (orange) and scientists fear this suggests it is more infectious and could take over as the number one type of the virus in the UK. Note: Some areas, such as Stevenage, Broxbourne and Oadby are recording very few cases of the virus so changes may not constitute a trend

The Indian variant also appears to be edging out the Kent strain in various parts of London, where it already accounts for half of cases or more, but low numbers of infections mean this may an effect caused by small clusters of cases

The Indian variant also appears to be edging out the Kent strain in various parts of London, where it already accounts for half of cases or more, but low numbers of infections mean this may an effect caused by small clusters of cases

‘There’s a little bit of what I would say is a glimmer of hope, from the recent data, that while this virus does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data, so the curves are flattening a little.

‘But it will take more time for us to be definitive about that.’

He said even if the strain was found to be 20 per cent more infectious than the Kent one, this would be ‘much easier to deal with’ than if the figure was 50 per cent. 

Ministers think clearer data on the Indian variant will come in next week, in the form of hospital pressures. It can take up to a week for infected people to fall ill enough to need to be admitted to the NHS for treatment. 

Given that the virus has only began to spread rapidly over the past fortnight, hospital figures remain low.

Experts hope the vaccines have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations or death but can’t be sure until they see real-world statistics from hotspots such as Bolton and Blackburn.

Whitehall insiders told The Times that sewage is also being monitored to find other flare-ups of the variant across the country.

If the spread of the variant does translate into increased pressure on the NHS, then England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ plans could be disrupted.

Professor Ferguson said it could be two or three weeks before data provided firm conclusions about the variant and what impact it will have on the lockdown easing roadmap.

And fellow Government adviser Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, said ‘we’ll get much more evidence’ over the next fortnight.

This is despite Boris Johnson suggesting yesterday that the picture would become clearer in ‘days’. 

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 almost 3,000 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 faster than the Kent variant — the UK’s dominant strain.

SAGE advisers sparked fears when they said the Indian B.1.617.2 strain could be up to 50 per cent more infectious than the dominant Kent strain, which is considered the most virulent strain in the world.

But leading scientists have now toned down their fears, saying it is likely to only be between 25 and 30 per cent more transmissible. 

And it is unlikely to slip past vaccine immunity, with ministers confident that jabs still tackle the variant. 

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.

Meanwhile, research in India found one dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine was 97 per cent effective against infection against the Indian variant. 

Professor Sharon Peacock, of Public Health England, said 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 the coronavirus 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 was 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 per cent of infections in early April, up from 46 per cent 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.

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 has warned.

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 Matt Hancock, there have been almost 3,000 cases of B.1.617.2, which is quadruple the amount reported a fortnight ago. 

It now accounts for one in five of all new infections. 

The cases are spread across the country, with the majority in two areas – the North West, mainly in Bolton, Blackburn, and Sefton, in Merseyside. But it is also spreading in London. 

Surge testing is now being deployed where there is evidence of community transmission and has already begun in the North West.  

Latest positive test data suggests the Indian variant is dominant – accounting for more than half of all positive tests – in 23 parts of England already.

Analysis of samples by the Wellcome Sanger Institute shows that by the week ending May 8, the variant accounted for eight in 10 cases in hotspots Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, Sefton and Bedford, as well as in Chelmsford in Essex and Croydon in London. 

It is less dominant in Nottingham, West Lancashire, Stevenage, Oadby and Wigston, South Northamptonshire, Broxbourne, Hillingdon, Brent, Camden, Hounslow, Greenwich, Bromley, Dartford, Sevenoaks, Canterbury, Rushmoor and Hart. 

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