As of today (17th May 2021), England will take its next step out of lockdown, with many indoor spaces, including restaurants, cinemas and theatres, opening to the public once again.
However, there is concern that these new rules have come into place at precisely the wrong moment, after cases of the B1.617.2 Covid-19 variant (first discovered in India) more than doubled in the past week.
The latest data on the ‘Indian variant’ published by Public Health England (PHE) shows the number of cases in the UK has risen from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week.
A "variant of concern"
The Indian variant has been termed a ‘variant of concern’ by PHE and the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is because the variant has been found to be moderately resistant to antibodies and highly transmissible, according to a molecular study.
In fact, PHE has assessed this variant as having at least equal transmissibility to the Kent variant (B.1.1.7). However, the Indian variant is thought to have low severity among those who are vaccinated.
Tim Spector, principal investigator of PREDICT studies and the ZOE Symptom Study app tweeted earlier that data collected from their app shows “no [case] increases for the last few days” and “risks at an individual level [are] still very low”, alongside this graph:
Are Covid-19 vaccines effective against the Indian variant?
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has said that early evidence suggests that Covid-19 vaccines do protect us from the Indian variant, but warns the virus could “spread like wildfire among unvaccinated groups.”
However, the latest figures reveal that there are five people in hospital with the virus who have had one dose of the vaccine and one person in hospital who had both doses.
The health secretary insists that the vast majority of those in hospital with the Indian variant of Covid-19 have not had the vaccine, despite being eligible. For this reason, he is urging people to come forward and have their vaccine when they are offered it.
He said: “It’s vital we do everything we can and use every resource we have to ensure we continue to keep the nation safe. We have implemented measures at record pace to get on top of this new variant and control the spread.
“Everyone has a role to play in this effort – accept the invite to get a jab when it comes, and if you live in one of the areas where we’ve introduced surge testing, get your free PCR test. Let’s work to fight this together.”
What does this mean for the most vulnerable?
NHS England have announced that a second vaccine dose will be offered to the most vulnerable and elderly groups earlier, at week eight instead of week 12, to help protect against variants.
The letter states that "all second dose appointments for those in cohorts 1-9 scheduled on or after 25 May (where that is more than 8 weeks after their first dose) should be brought forward."
Those aged under 50 will continue to get their first dose, with their second dose 12 weeks later, as has been the deployment strategy so far.
Where are the Indian variant cases in the England?
Most cases are in the North West of England, with areas such as Blackburn and Bolton seeing a sharp spike in infections. There are also a significant number of cases in London.
The government have deployed various strategies in an attempt to control the variant and slow the spread. This includes surge testing, which has already been deployed in 15 areas across England, including Bolton, Blackburn, London, Sefton and Nottingham.
In Bolton, the Surge Rapid Response Team includes 100 nurses, public health advisers and environmental health officers, and will provide support to the local authority through door-to-door testing and encouraging residents to take a PCR test.
Additional measures will also be implemented in areas where clusters of cases have been detected, such as increased genome sequencing of positive cases, as well as enhanced testing and contact tracing.
Dominic Harrison, the public health director for Blackburn with Darwen, tweeted that an additional supply of 1,000 vaccines a day will be available for all residents over the age of 18 (subject to eligibility) in high variant spread areas for the next two weeks.
Will the Indian variant slow the easing of lockdown restrictions?
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said the government hasn't ruled out the idea of local lockdowns in high variant spread areas. However, local MPs have shown disapproval for this idea and encouraged different methods to control the spread.
With all restrictions due to be eased on the 21st June, the Prime Minister has warned that the virus variant could pose “serious disruption” to the easing of lockdown rules. He said: "I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June."
"I urge everyone to exercise the greatest caution because the choices we each make in the coming days will have a material effect on the road ahead."