Coronavirus: Indian variant is already dominant in at least 23 parts of England

The Indian Covid variant has already overtaken the Kent strain in 23 English local authorities and it has spread to 40 per cent of the country, positive test data has revealed as Boris Johnson desperately tried to play down rising fears that the June 21 ‘freedom day’ could be ditched because of the strain.  

The Prime Minister stressed that the roadmap out of lockdown is currently unchanged with the government sifting through emerging data about the fast-spreading strain.

But he appeared to shift his language slightly by saying there is not yet ‘conclusive’ evidence that the roadmap will need to be altered and said things would be clearer in a ‘few days’. 

‘We are looking at the epidemiology the whole time as it comes in and, at the moment, partly because we have built up such a wall of defences with the vaccination programme, I don’t see anything conclusive at the moment to say that we need to deviate from the road map,’ he said.

‘But we’ve got to be cautious and we are keeping everything under very close observation. We’ll know a lot more in a few days’ time.’ 

Analysis of samples from people infected with Covid has revealed that the Indian variant was present in 127 out of 314 local areas in England in the week to May 8, compared to 71 the week before. Since it was discovered it has been found in 162 areas and Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday said there had been five or more cases in at least 86 places.

Figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute also revealed the mutant strain had become dominant in 23 parts of the country by last week after cases almost doubled in seven days. 

Nationally, there have been 2,323 cases of the variant – four times the 520 ten days ago – and the strain now makes up at least one in five of all new infections.

The variant accounts 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.

Data suggests it is also dominant – accounting for more than half of all positive tests – in Nottingham, West Lancashire, Stevenage, Oadby and Wigston, South Northamptonshire, Broxbourne, Hillingdon, Brent, Camden, Hounslow, Greenwich, Bromley, Dartford, Sevenoaks, Canterbury, Rushmoor and Hart. 

Cabinet ministers met today to try to thrash out a strategy to curb the new variant, with emergency plans that could see local restrictions used to combat hotspots while the rest of the country relaxes.

In an echo of the tiers system brought in last summer, people in the worst-hit areas could be told to stay at home and restaurants and shops forced to close – with stricken businesses handed more grants to keep them afloat. 

Mr Johnson today tried to dampen concerns that vaccine hesitancy could prevent the next round of easings going ahead, pointing out that levels of uptake in the UK were very high by international standards. On a visit to a vaccine centre in London, he urged people to ‘get your jab’ when invited by the health service.

But Manchester’s mayor and the hospitality industry reacted with anger at the idea, insisting it had not worked last time and would cripple thousands of businesses.

There are also growing doubts about whether lockdown will be lifted across England on June 21. Just a week ago Mr Johnson was holding out the prospect of a broad lifting of legal constraints and social distancing, but it now appears that a review of the rules is unlikely to report this month.

As the coronavirus crisis took more twists and turns today: 

  • Dominic Cummings has tweeted hinting that he has a bombshell documents about the decisions made on lockdown;
  • Deaths involving Covid-19 among people in over-60s have fallen by at least 98 per cent since the second-wave peak, the latest ONS figures suggest;
  • Dozens of flights left UK airports for ‘amber list’ countries such as France, Spain and the United States, despite a warning against doing so from No 10;
  • Figures revealed the Indian variant has now been identified in 86 local authorities, after cases doubled in four days. It now accounts for 20 per cent of infections;
  • Britons aged 36 and 37 are being invited to have the jab, with 35-year-olds expected to join the list by the end of the week;
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber hit out at ‘selfish’ individuals who refuse the jab, and urged the PM not to abandon the June 21 date;
  • The National Audit Office said the cost of tackling Covid had hit £372billion, with the bill rising by more than £100billion since January.
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

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

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 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

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

In mid-March there were no cases linked to the strain, data from positive test analysis reveals
By the beginning of May, the strain had been found in dozens of local authorities, with hotspots emerging in the North West of England, the Midlands and London
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Data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute shows that the variant has spread widely across the UK since it was first discovered. In mid-March there were no cases linked to the strain (shown left) and, by the beginning of May, it had been found in dozens of local authorities, with hotspots emerging in the North West of England, the Midlands and London

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)

Labour and local leaders have been demanding vaccines are rushed through for younger people in areas where the strain is taking hold – something that has so far been rejected.

One government source told ITV News that some of the loosening that took effect this week – including ‘Rule of Six’ socialising indoors and in bars and restaurants – might have to be rolled back.

‘It is clear some social distancing will have to be retained, not everything we’ve set out for 21 June is likely to happen,’ they said. But it is also possible some of the easing we’ve done today will have to be reversed.’

Any backtracking would be a huge blow to Mr Johnson after he vowed a ‘cautious but irreversible’ exit from lockdown. 

Tory ministers and MPs have been warning the PM against changing course, complaining that curbs must not be extended to protect people who are refusing vaccines – which are believed to be effective against the Indian variant.

One Cabinet minister said missing the June 21 milestone could become Mr Johnson’s ‘Theresa May moment’ – a reference to her failed Brexit deadline.

Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day

Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day

Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day

The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible - which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January

The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible - which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January

The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible – which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January

The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July - up to around 45,000 - compared to the current 845

The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July - up to around 45,000 - compared to the current 845

The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July – up to around 45,000 – compared to the current 845

BORIS GATHERS CABINET AMID RISING VARIANT CASES

Boris Johnson is gathering his Cabinet for crunch talks today amid grim claims there is a ‘close to nil’ chance of June 21 lockdown easing going ahead as hoped.

The PM and his senior ministers are meeting with anxiety over the fast-spreading Indian variant of coronavirus running high.

Ministers are preparing emergency plans that could see local restrictions used to combat hotspots, or even the next stage of the roadmap delayed.

In an echo of the tiers system brought in last summer, people in the worst-hit areas could be told to stay at home and restaurants and shops forced to close – with stricken businesses handed more grants to keep them afloat.

There are also growing doubts about whether lockdown can be lifted across England on June 21. Just a week ago Mr Johnson was holding out the prospect of a broad lifting of legal constraints and social distancing, but it now appears that a review of the rules is unlikely to report this month.

One Government source told ITV News that some of the loosening that took effect this week – including ‘Rule of Six’ socialising indoors and in bars and restaurants – might have to be rolled back.

‘It is clear some social distancing will have to be retained, not everything we’ve set out for 21 June is likely to happen,’ they said.

‘But it is also possible some of the easing we’ve done today will have to be reversed.’

Any backtracking would be a huge blow to Mr Johnson after he vowed a ‘cautious but irreversible’ exit from lockdown.

Tory ministers and MPs have been warning the PM against changing course, complaining that curbs must not be extended to protect people who are refusing vaccines – which are believed to be effective against the Indian variant.

One Cabinet minister warned that missing the June 21 milestone could become Mr Johnson’s ‘Theresa May moment’ – a reference to her failed Brexit deadline.

‘This freedom date is burned on people’s brains in the same way as her date for leaving the EU,’ the source said. ‘When she missed it, she was finished.’ 

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‘This freedom date is burned on people’s brains in the same way as her date for leaving the EU,’ the source said. ‘When she missed it, she was finished.’

The source said No 10 had ‘overreacted to panicked warnings from the usual suspects’ in parts of the health establishment.

The latest analysis of the Indian variant’s spread comes from the Sanger Institute, one of the largest variant-testing labs in the UK. It checks more than half of all the UK’s samples to spot different types of the virus.

Its data excludes door-to-door surge testing and travellers’ tests, allowing it to reflect which variants are spreading in the community and not random cases brought in from elsewhere.

London and the North West are experiencing the largest outbreaks of B.1.617.2, the data suggest, although it is being spotted in many other areas. Some 40 local authorities recorded just one case. 

Sefton, in Merseyside, had the highest proportion of infections down to the variant with nine in ten of all cases (99 out of 110 cases checked) in the week to May 8. This was a four-fold spike on the previous week.

In Bolton 85 per cent of cases were due to the variant (289 out of 337), while in Blackburn with Darwen it was 83 per cent (110 of 132) and Bedford 81 per cent (69 of 85). South Northamptonshire had 75 per cent of cases due to the variant (24 of 32). Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford saw their cases more than double in a week.

Mr Hancock said yesterday there were eight people in hospital with the Indian variant of the virus in Blackburn, where admissions are ‘stable’. But there are now 19 people in Bolton’s hospitals, and some in intensive care.

The Government also faces intense pressure to explain why there was a delay in adding India to the red list of countries, while neighbouring Pakistan had been placed on it days before.

Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former senior adviser, joined the criticism of Whitehall’s slow approach yesterday, calling the UK’s border policy a ‘joke’ because of its ‘refusal’ to learn from pandemic measures used in East Asian countries.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said today that ‘in some of these areas that are affected, vaccine uptake has been a little bit lower than the national average’.

Challenged on comments from Bolton South East MP Yasmin Qureshi suggesting part of the problem was there was poor organisation rather than reluctance to have a jab, Mr Eustice told Times Radio: ‘The feedback that I have had right across the country has been universally positive about the way people locally have delivered this.

‘But it is the case that in some communities there’s been a bit more hesitancy. A lot of work has been done in particular to get BAME communities to engage and to have the vaccine. We just need to keep pushing on that work.’ 

He told Times Radio that ‘intensive surveillance’ was being used in areas with high case rates but local restrictions remained a possibility.

At the moment there was a ‘clear road map out of the lockdown ‘ with a decision due in a few weeks’ time on whether the June 21 measures can go ahead.

Dominic Cummings threatens to reveal ‘crucial’ Covid documents

Dominic Cummings today set the stage for an explosive appearance in front of MPs next week, claiming an obsession with secrecy at the heart of Government ‘contributed greatly to the catastrophe’ of the Covid pandemic in the UK.

Boris Johnson’s former top aide also threatened to reveal a ‘crucial historical document’ when he is grilled on No10’s handling of coronavirus at a joint session of the health and science committees on May 26.

He took to Twitter today in a typically lengthy diatribe about the the pandemic, saying ‘openness to scrutiny would have exposed Government errors weeks earlier than happened’.

He urged the Government to learn from this in their handling of the vaccine rollout and the Indian variant by making ’99 per cent’ of it public to increase confident yet further.

It came after last night be branded the UK’s border policy a ‘joke’ amid questions over whether Indian arrivals should have been haled sooner.

No10 is bracing itself for a mauling from the PM’s former Svengali when he takes questions from ministers next Wednesday.

Today he appeared to goad the Prime Minister over a document from his time in Downing Street

He asked his 37,000 Twitter followers today whether he should reveal it when he appears or keep it secret by selling it for charity. He later clarified that he would be releasing the document to the committee whatever happened.

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‘If we do have a deterioration in some of these areas then of course we can’t rule out that we would put in place certain local lockdowns,’ he said.

‘At the moment we are doing a lot of intensive surveillance in those areas, with surge testing to identify it and deal with it.’

Irritation at the refusal of a small number to have a jab intensified yesterday after Mr Hancock told MPs that most patients hospitalised by the Indian variant in the epicentre of the outbreak in Bolton had not had the jab.

The Health Secretary said most of them had turned down jab offers. 

Mr Johnson has also described local lockdowns as a ‘last resort’, with the government instead focusing efforts on surge testing and increasing the availability of vaccinations in the worst-hit areas.

The plans being drawn up at the moment could put parts of the country into something similar to last year’s Tier 4, the equivalent of a full lockdown.

But some ministers have voiced concerns that local lockdowns in towns and cities would not be enough and they should be imposed on regions – which would have a larger economic impact than those seen last year.

There were several reports last year of people leaving higher tier areas to enjoy freedoms in areas with low or no restrictions just miles away.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said: ‘Last year, tiers did not work – they did not stop the spread of the virus.

‘It would be hard for me to put out a message of caution in Greater Manchester when nationally the messaging is very different, that the road map is proceeding.

‘We struggled with that mixed messaging all of last year.

WHERE HAD THE INDIAN VARIANT BEEN SPOTTED IN ENGLAND BY MAY 8? 

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‘Government should listen to its own MPs, to what I am saying, and allow the vaccination programme to proceed much more quickly in Bolton, Blackburn and other places that have the spread of this variant.

‘That is the solution, and it is right in front of us.’

Sacha Lord, night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is going to take at least three years for businesses to return to pre-pandemic levels in terms of getting rid of loans, the debt, the rent arrears and the VAT holidays.’

Even with yesterday’s easing of some restrictions ‘businesses were operating at 50 per cent’ as they had to provide a range of safety measures including one-way systems and table service.

‘We can’t live by these rumours. We need absolute assurances. We have been told about this review date of June 14 – one week isn’t enough to get hospitality running again,’ he warned.

Bedford’s director of public health said today she was ‘really worried’ about the spread of the Indian Covid-19 variant in the area.

Vicky Head told BBC Breakfast there had been 80 confirmed cases of the variant in Bedford.

She said: ‘What we know is what we’ve been seeing locally, which is a really massive rise in cases.

‘About three or four weeks ago we were having three or four cases a day. We are now up to 10 times that.’

She added: ‘What we think now is that pretty much all of our cases are likely to be the variant from India.’

Ms Head said: ‘That’s one of the really striking things about the variant, is just how transmissible it is. If someone goes to school and tests positive, we are then seeing their whole family test positive.’

Asked if she was worried about the rise in cases, she said: ‘I am really worried about it. Everyone needs to understand just how transmissible this variant is.’

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth told Mr Hancock last night that instead of local lockdowns the government should be pushing ‘going hell for leather to roll out vaccination to everyone’ in hotspot areas.

‘Health officials in Bolton And Blackburn have called for it. Shouldn’t we listen to the experts on the ground?’ he said.

But he also cautioned: ‘Even if we drive up vaccination amongst adults, 20 per cent of the population are children and while they remain unvaccinated this means the virus can still spread. The CDC in the US is moving to vaccinate children – what progress is there on that here?’

Tory MPs suggested they would support vaccination for younger people if it was practical – but pointed out that mid-30s were already being called in for jabs.

‘The problem is that there are areas of London where only 58 per cent of the people currently eligible have had it,’ one senior MP told MailOnline.

‘The key point is that the people that are most likely to be hospitalised are in priority groups. There the ones that have to be vaccinated.’

They added: ‘We have got to be quite clear about this… we cannot reach the position where we are going to carry on locking down when people have been invited for vaccines and haven’t done it.’

No 10 has urged those deliberating over whether to be vaccinated to ‘think of others’ but refused to say whether the next stage of unlocking would go ahead as planned.

Downing Street also confirmed that the Prime Minister’s plan to announce the end of social distancing measures like the one-metre rule and masks in shops was likely to be delayed while scientists analysed the scale of the threat posed by the new strain.

The possible return of local lockdowns would be fiercely resisted in the North West of England, where restrictions were in place for much of 2020.

Mr Johnson would face huge pressure from his own ranks if he tries to push back the reopening of the economy and society.

Mark Harper, chairman of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said: ‘It is concerning to hear the government is entertaining the delay of the June 21 unlocking – causing massive problems for many people’s livelihoods – because some people won’t have a jab.

‘Wider society’s fate can’t be sealed by the actions of a small group of people.’

Tory former minister Conor Burns said: ‘As a nation we have tolerated with generally good humour the most profound curtailment of our freedoms in peacetime for the greater good. It wouldn’t be right to do it again for those who have been offered a vaccine and have freely chosen not to take it, fully aware of the risks.’

Simon Clarke, another former minister, said: ‘It’s vital people take the vaccine when offered. Our wider society should not be held back from recovering our freedoms by those who choose not to protect themselves and others.’

Fellow Tory Marcus Fysh said: ‘It is not reasonable to delay complete release from restrictions domestically on June 21. The vast majority are vaccinated, the vaccines work, and the rest now have a vanishingly small risk of harm. If people don’t want to be vaccinated it is not up to society to shield them.’

To help boost the vaccine rollout NHS England has today widened the drive to 36 and 37-year-olds, pulling the programme down into the mid-30s for the first time.

Health officials in Bolton have also started a huge vaccination push in a bid to stop a surging outbreak there and got jabs to more than 9,000 people over the weekend.

Concerns over the variant are leading to many people in Bolton who had been eligible for the jab attending appointments, after previously failing to turn up.

NHS England data for May 9 show that 81 per cent of people over the age of 40 in Bolton have had at least one vaccine dose, compared to 83 per cent across England.

The uptake is worse in nearby Blackburn where just 78 per cent of eligible people have got a jab. 

London mayor Sadiq Khan is also calling for the roll-out to be sped up in parts of the capital with outbreaks of the Indian variant. He hinted yesterday the plan had been sent to Mr Hancock but that it appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.

More than eight in ten cases were also found to be the Indian strain in Chelmsford (85 per cent or 11 of 13) and Croydon (82 per cent or 14 of 17), which both saw infections rise by around 150 per cent in a week.

In Nottingham it was responsible for more than seven in 10 cases (74 per cent, or 47 out of 63). Across London, a fifth of boroughs had more than 50 per cent of cases due to the Indian variant.

Croydon had the highest proportion, followed by Hounslow (72 per cent, or 21 of 29), Hillingdon (69 per cent or 9 of 13), Greenwich (64 per cent, or 9 of 14), Camden (62 per cent, or 5 of 8), Bromley (54 per cent, or 6 of 11) and Brent (50 per cent, or 12 in 24).

Fewer than 10 cases of the variant were sequenced in hotspots West Lancashire (60 per cent, or 3 of 5), Stevenage (2 cases), Oadby and Wigston (2 cases), Broxbourne (3 cases), Dartford (4 cases), Sevenoaks (67 per cent or 2 of 3), Canterbury (50 per cent, or 4 of 8), Rushmoor (83 per cent, or 5 of 6) and Hart (75 per cent or 3 of 4).

The director of public health for Sheffield, Greg Fell, told the Financial Times local health chiefs would be fools to think they would not see cases of the variant.

‘What we are seeing is generalised community spread from a number of initial “seeds” [made easier] by very closely connected, hyperlocal communities with densely packed housing,’ he told the publication.

SAGE scientists say they are fairly sure the variant is faster spreading than older strains and some suggested it could be by as much as 50 per cent on top of the Kent variant.

But some scientists dispute this figure. They point out it may be based on a large number of cases being imported from India before the country was put on the government’s red list, which has made it seem better at spreading.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a SAGE member from Warwick University, said the variant has ‘taken hold in several areas of the UK’.

‘While the vaccination campaign has been progressing extremely successfully since January, it is important to remember that the vaccines are not 100 per cent protective and the presence of a more transmissible variant exposes people to increased risk, even if they have been vaccinated.

‘Therefore it is vital that as many people as possible, regardless of age or health status, take up the vaccine when offered.’

Officials are considering surge vaccination plans in hotspots for the Indian variant as a way to curb the spread of the virus there amid fears it could spark a third wave.

BLACKBURN WITH DARWEN: Indian variant cases surged more than two fold in a week in this authority. It made up 110 out of 132 cases sequenced for strains of the virus

BLACKBURN WITH DARWEN: Indian variant cases surged more than two fold in a week in this authority. It made up 110 out of 132 cases sequenced for strains of the virus

SOUTH N0RTHAMPTONSHIRE: This council area remained a hotspot for community transmission. Some 75 per cent of its cases, or 24 out of 32, were linked to the variant

SOUTH N0RTHAMPTONSHIRE: This council area remained a hotspot for community transmission. Some 75 per cent of its cases, or 24 out of 32, were linked to the variant

Indian variant cases surged more than two fold in a week in Blackburn. It made up 110 out of 132 cases sequenced for strains of the virus. South Northamptonshire remained a hotspot for community transmission. Some 75 per cent of its cases, or 24 out of 32, were linked to the variant

BOLTON: The strain was responsible for more than eight in ten cases sequenced here in the week to May 8, the latest available. They made up 289 out of 337 cases sequenced

BOLTON: The strain was responsible for more than eight in ten cases sequenced here in the week to May 8, the latest available. They made up 289 out of 337 cases sequenced

SEFTON: The Indian variant of Covid was blamed for nine in ten cases sequenced in Sefton, Merseyside. It made up 99 out of 110 cases of the virus

SEFTON: The Indian variant of Covid was blamed for nine in ten cases sequenced in Sefton, Merseyside. It made up 99 out of 110 cases of the virus

The proportion of positive tests that contain th variant strain in Bolton and Sefton: The strain was responsible for more than eight in ten cases sequenced in Bolton in the week to May 8, the latest available. They made up 289 out of 337 cases sequenced. : The Indian variant of Covid was blamed for nine in ten cases sequenced in Sefton, Merseyside. It made up 99 out of 110 cases of the virus

Rifts are opening up between ministers and scientists over whether it will be safe to end lockdown as planned on June 21 with top SAGE advisers today admitting they won’t be enjoying new-found freedoms, which saw pubs and restaurants reopen indoors and home visits back on the cards, because of the threat of a huge spike in cases.

One minister today said the chances of the next easing going ahead were ‘close to nil’, as Boris Johnson met his senior advisers in order to thrash out a strategy.

The Prime Minister yesterday urged people to adopt a ‘heavy dose of caution’ after lockdown loosened and a Cabinet colleague encouraged revellers to avoid ‘excessive drinking’ with ministers at loggerheads over whether to extend lockdown to battle the strain. 

The vaccine programme will go full pace in a bid to try and protect people from the variant, with jabs the last line of defence now that lockdown has all but ended. 

SHOULD CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS GET VACCINATED AND WHAT IMPACT WILL JABS HAVE ON THE INDIAN VARIANT?

Giving children and teenagers coronavirus vaccines is a controversial subject because their risk of getting severe Covid is almost non-existent, so the jabs would mostly be given to protect older people and the actual benefit to the child would be minimal.

WOULD VACCINATING CHILDREN BE HELPFUL?

Vaccinating children is less important than reaching older people because their risk of disease is so low that it would likely have almost no impact on the numbers of severe cases and deaths.

A total of 40 people younger than 20 have died of Covid in hospital in England over the past year – just 0.04 per cent of the total. 

The reasons for immunising children and teenagers would be to prevent them from spreading the infection and to stop them developing long Covid, the long-term effects of which are still unknown.

A Public Health England study suggests that vaccinated people are at least half as likely to transmit the virus as someone who hasn’t had a jab.

However, the amount children actually spread the virus is still not well understood. Imperial College London research in November suggested around one in five children don’t get any symptoms at all and the majority of the rest only have a mild illness. Less than four per cent get seriously ill, it suggested.

People who get mild or no symptoms are generally thought to transmit the virus less because they don’t cough as much and have lower levels of virus in their body. 

HAVE THE VACCINES BEEN TESTED ON CHILDREN?

Pfizer is the only company to have completed clinical trials of its vaccine in under-18s and receive government approval, being granted a licence in the US last week.

In a study of the jab in 12- to 15-year-olds Pfizer found two doses prevented 100 per cent of Covid cases – there were 18 positives in the 1,129 people who didn’t get the vaccine and none in the 1,131 who did. The vaccine was ‘well-tolerated’ and side effects the same as in over-16s.

AstraZeneca’s original trial was on over-18s and it is now trialling the vaccine on around 200 children between the ages of six and 17 in Britain, but it paused enrolment in April after it emerged the jab could cause blood clots. Those already vaccinated will continue to be monitored.

Moderna is running two separate trials for young people – one for 12- to 18-year-olds and one for those between the ages of 12 and six months. Its jab is almost identical to Pfizer’s so is likely to be successful.

Johnson & Johnson also did its initial tests on over-18s and is now doing a trial with adolescents aged 12 to 17. 

In general, it is expected that the vaccines will work just as well, if not better, in children and in teenagers than adults. Their immune systems create stronger responses and develop protection more effectively – immune systems get weaker with age, which is why jabs tend to be less effective in elderly people.

A downside of the stronger immune response is that, with some vaccines, young people get more side effects. This was seen in the AstraZeneca trial, with symptoms like headaches and fevers more common in the younger adult participants.

WILL THE JABS STOP THE INDIA VARIANT?

Research is ongoing into how well the vaccines will protect against the new Indian variant of the virus which scientists say could become dominant in the UK.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said last week that he expects vaccines to work better than they do against the South African variant, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock added on Sunday: ‘We have increasing confidence that the vaccine works against the variant.’

Oxford University study results revealed at the weekend suggest the jabs are ‘nearly as effective’ against the B.1617.2 variant as they are against the original Wuhan variant.

In a case report of 33 care home workers getting infected after vaccination in Delhi, India, where the variant is widespread, none became seriously ill with the virus, the Financial Times reported.

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. The figure suggests the vaccine may struggle to prevent infection – because the carers did catch the virus – but that it will stop serious Covid and death. 

Early research by the Gupta Lab at Cambridge University found that the original version of the Indian strain, from which the new variant evolved, led to an approximately seven-fold reduction in the number of antibodies capable of tackling the virus. This was a less drastic effect than caused by mutations on the South African or Brazilian variants of the virus.

But the Oxford study suggests there are still enough antibodies to be able to neutralise the virus, significantly reducing the risk of getting severely ill or dying, The Sunday Times reported.

The drawback of a cut to the antibody levels could be that the vaccines don’t stop transmission of the virus as well. Studies are still ongoing to work out how well jabs can cut transmission of the India variant.

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