Covid UK: Lockdown may never happen again, says SAGE adviser

Britain might never need another Covid lockdown and looks set for a ‘steady course out of the pandemic’ thanks to the vaccine rollout, which will add a third jab for over-50s in a booster programme to start in autumn.

Professor Neil Ferguson, the SAGE adviser whose warning that hundreds of thousands could die if Britain didn’t go into lockdown in March 2020, said he thinks it is unlikely the country will have to shut down again.

He admitted to the BBC there ‘may be a need to roll back on some of these measures’ if a vaccine-resistant variant were to appear later in the year but he didn’t think it would happen.

To cut the risk of this happening the Government will, in autumn, offer a third jab to everyone over the age of 50 or in a clinically vulnerable group. One unnamed minister claimed it is hoped the move means Covid will have ‘faded away into the background like any other illness’ by Christmas. 

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is currently supervising trials of two possible ways to deliver the autumn boosters, including giving third doses of existing jabs or using updated vaccines specifically tailored to target new variants. The current jabs are modelled on the Wuhan variant which is no longer dominant.

Early research has raised hopes in the Government that either of the two approaches can nullify the threat from existing and new variants, it is understood. Matt Hancock last week announced Number 10 had bought 60million more doses of the Pfizer jab to use for the second rollout. 

A senior government minister told The Times: ‘We think that the level of protection in the population to any variant will be so high that, by Christmas, Covid should have just faded away into the background like any other illness in circulation. So much so we don’t think there will be any need to give a booster shot to younger people because transmission will have got so low.’

Public Health England, soon to become the UK Health Security Agency, will also pump an extra £30million into analysing positive swab samples to track Covid variants and develop new vaccines to fight them if necessary. The project will be co-ordinated from its Porton Down lab in Wiltshire.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the scheme would ‘future-proof the vaccination programme for next year and the years beyond that, as we move from pandemic to endemic and deal with it in the way we would deal with the annual flu vaccination programme’. 

Mr Zahawi warned, however, the virus was still capable of spreading ‘like wildfire’ in places where vaccine uptake was low and that officials were looking at postcode level data to spot which communities were at risk of flare-ups.

Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure to speed up the easing of England’s lockdown because of the hugely successful vaccination drive and cases and deaths dwindling. Restrictions won’t be loosened until May 17, when foreign holidays are set to be given the go ahead. Pubs will also be allowed to open indoors. Measures will stay in place until June 21, at the earliest.

More than 34.6million Britons have been given at least a first dose of Covid vaccine, with 15.6million adults fully immunised.  

Boris Johnson waves as he rides a bike ride along the towpath of the Stourbridge canal in the West Midlands during a Conservative party local election visit

Boris Johnson waves as he rides a bike ride along the towpath of the Stourbridge canal in the West Midlands during a Conservative party local election visit

Boris Johnson waves as he rides a bike ride along the towpath of the Stourbridge canal in the West Midlands during a Conservative party local election visit

The 60million extra doses of Pfizer's vaccine ordered by the UK will put it on par with AstraZeneca's as the most widely available in the country, with 100million doses of each. The UK has enough supplies on order to vaccinate the entire population many times over

The 60million extra doses of Pfizer's vaccine ordered by the UK will put it on par with AstraZeneca's as the most widely available in the country, with 100million doses of each. The UK has enough supplies on order to vaccinate the entire population many times over

The 60million extra doses of Pfizer’s vaccine ordered by the UK will put it on par with AstraZeneca’s as the most widely available in the country, with 100million doses of each. The UK has enough supplies on order to vaccinate the entire population many times over








£29m to ‘future-proof’ UK against Covid variants 

Vaccines that protect against new virus variants will be developed much more quickly thanks to a major new research hub, Matt Hancock has pledged.

The Health Secretary is investing £29.3million into a series of new laboratories at the Porton Down research centre in Wiltshire.

Government officials are concerned a third virus wave could be triggered by the emergence of a new variant that cannot be protected by vaccines in use now.

While scientists are confident existing vaccines provide some protection against the Kent and South African variants, little is known about their effectiveness against others, including the Brazilian and Indian variants.

The money will quadruple the number of tests carried out each week at the site of potential new vaccines – from 700 to 3,000.

It currently takes several months from a variant being identified to a jab being developed that protects against it and is safe.

But officials hope this wait will be slashed to several weeks. The first jabs capable of protecting against the South African variant and potentially others are likely to be ready in September or October.

Mr Hancock said: ‘The UK has proven itself to be a world-class force in the production of Covid-19 vaccines, with the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Novavax and Valneva vaccines all researched, developed or manufactured on British soil.

‘This multi-million pound funding for a state-of-the-art vaccine testing facility at Porton Down will enable us to further future-proof the country from the threat of new variants.’

He insisted: ‘We are committed to supporting the UK’s flourishing life sciences industry.’

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said: ‘While we expect the existing vaccines to offer protection against new variants – particularly preventing serious illness and death – it is important that we continue to monitor the picture as it develops.’

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Professor Ferguson told the BBC he felt ‘optimistic’ about the UK’s immediate future, adding: ‘In the worst case scenario, if we have a new variant pop up which does manage to evade the vaccines, say late summer early autumn, there may be a need to roll back on some of these measures at least temporarily until we can boost people’s immunity.

‘Do I think it’s likely to happen? No, I don’t. I think we are much more likely to be on a steady course now out of this pandemic, at least in this country.’

Fears about a devastating third wave of disease this summer, which the Prime Minister had been forced to accept was inevitable, are now calming.

Even SAGE experts think it is ‘very unlikely’ that there will be a devastating spike in cases when lockdown ends.

Thanks to vaccines effectively cutting transmission as well as preventing serious illness, modellers trying to predict future outbreaks suggest the danger has been lessened.

New possible scenarios are set to be published next week by government scientists, The Times reports, that will show a reduced risk from reopening in the summer.

Professor Graham Medley, SAGE adviser and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the paper: ‘The good news about the vaccination effect means that some of the scenarios about very large waves later in the summer are now very unlikely.’    

With science now proving the Covid vaccines work well in the real world, Britain has has ordered an extra 60million doses of the Pfizer jab, taking its total order to 100m in preparation for the booster rollout later in the year.

These doses are the same as the Pfizer ones currently being given out and have not been tweaked to target new variants specifically. But pharmaceutical companies are also developing and trialling variant-specific jabs and either type could be used for the autumn rollout, due to begin in September.

And the Department of Health said it will ‘future-proof’ the country’s defences against new variants by setting up a research hub to quadruple the number of variant tests carried out each week from 700 to 3,000. 

This will speed up the recognition of new strains and help officials to work out which ones are circulating in the UK and where, allowing them to do surge testing and develop new vaccines if necessary.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said: ‘While we expect the existing vaccines to offer protection against new variants – particularly preventing serious illness and death – it is important that we continue to monitor the picture as it develops.’

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said on BBC Breakfast this move would ‘future-proof the vaccination programme for next year and the years beyond that, as we move from pandemic to endemic and deal with it in the way we would deal with the annual flu vaccination programme.’








The NHS will do another Covid vaccine rollout in the autumn to make sure people are protected against new variants of the coronavirus, because the current vaccines are targeted at the Wuhan strain which has now been overtaken by others in most places (Pictured: A woman receives a jab in Reading, Berkshire)

The NHS will do another Covid vaccine rollout in the autumn to make sure people are protected against new variants of the coronavirus, because the current vaccines are targeted at the Wuhan strain which has now been overtaken by others in most places (Pictured: A woman receives a jab in Reading, Berkshire)

The NHS will do another Covid vaccine rollout in the autumn to make sure people are protected against new variants of the coronavirus, because the current vaccines are targeted at the Wuhan strain which has now been overtaken by others in most places (Pictured: A woman receives a jab in Reading, Berkshire)

More people in England and Wales are now dying of flu and pneumonia than Covid for first time since the second wave took off

More people are now dying from flu and pneumonia than Covid in England and Wales for the first time since the second wave took off, official figures revealed today.

Office for National Statistics data showed the virus was mentioned on 260 death certificates that occurred in the week ending April 23 — down 30 per cent on the week before. 

But Covid was only listed as the underlying cause for 176 of the victims. For comparison, flu and pneumonia was behind 278 deaths in the same seven-day spell but mentioned on 1,203 certificates.

Covid was the leading cause of death during the second wave, claiming more than 1,000 lives a day at the peak of the crisis in January.

Experts said a successful vaccine roll-out forcing down Covid deaths combined with more mixing leading to a resurgence in the  flu was behind the common illness now causing more deaths than the pandemic virus.

The promising figures will inevitably pile more pressure on Boris Johnson to speed-up his ultra-cautious lockdown exit strategy, which will not permit holidays or pubs and restaurants to serve indoors until May 17. Restrictions will remain in place until June 21, at the earliest.

Scientists are already predicting the successful vaccine roll-out — which has already jabbed 34million Britons —may mean the country never needs another blanket lockdown. 

Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London epidemiologist and SAGE adviser who warned hundreds of thousands could die if Britain didn’t go into lockdown in March 2020, said he thinks it is unlikely the country will have to shut down again. 

 

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Speaking to Sky News about the booster vaccines he said the country was stockpiling the extras, adding: ‘Pfizer is one option, we’re going to give [people] an AstraZeneca option – we’re working with the team on a vaccine variant.

‘Clinicians haven’t yet made the decision when they will need to boost, whether to give more immunity to the most vulnerable, to increase the durability of the protection or to deal with the variant.’ 

The news comes after Britain dropped demands for India to release five million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine destined for the UK.

Whitehall sources said efforts to lift the export ban imposed in March by the Indian government had been ‘put on the backburner’.

It comes amid concern about the dire state of the pandemic in the country, where Covid cases have soared past 20million. 

Mr Johnson held wide-ranging talks via video link with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi as part of plans to deliver a ‘quantum leap’ in relations between the two countries in the next decade.

Downing Street said the two leaders talked about the need to boost ‘pandemic resilience’. 

In a statement released afterwards, Mr Johnson highlighted Britain’s assistance with the crisis in India, which includes the provision of oxygen equipment and ventilators. 

He said: ‘In the last week the British people have stepped up in their thousands to support our Indian friends during this terrible time in a demonstration of the deep connection between the UK and India. This connection will only grow over the next decade as we do more together to tackle the world’s biggest problems and make life better for our people.’

In March, the Prime Minister despatched his senior aide Lord Lister to try to secure the release of five million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India.

At the time, the institute – the world’s largest vaccine producer – indicated that the export had been blocked by the Indian government.

The decision dashed hopes that the UK Government could fast-track the vaccination of all adults here ahead of the July target.

The issue was not directly raised during talks between the two leaders, although there was discussion of the need to ‘firm up international supply chains to ensure critical medicines, vaccines and other medical products reach those who need them most’.

But a Whitehall source said the UK’s request for the release of the doses had been shelved in the face of a crisis that has seen Indian hospitals overwhelmed in recent weeks.

‘I think it’s fair to say it has been put on the backburner,’ the source said. ‘It is not an immediate prospect.’ While the UK has given at least one vaccine dose to more than half the population, the equivalent figure in India is less than 10 per cent.

There were 6million Covid cases globally last week, compared to 6million in the first five months of the pandemic

There were 6million Covid cases globally last week, compared to 6million in the first five months of the pandemic

There were 6million Covid cases globally last week, compared to 6million in the first five months of the pandemic

Public Health England has divided the Indian variant in three sub-types because they aren't identical. Type 1 and Type 3 both have a mutation called E484Q but Type 2 is missing this, despite still clearly being a descendant of the original Indian strain. It is not yet clear what separates Type 1 and 3

Public Health England has divided the Indian variant in three sub-types because they aren't identical. Type 1 and Type 3 both have a mutation called E484Q but Type 2 is missing this, despite still clearly being a descendant of the original Indian strain. It is not yet clear what separates Type 1 and 3

Public Health England has divided the Indian variant in three sub-types because they aren’t identical. Type 1 and Type 3 both have a mutation called E484Q but Type 2 is missing this, despite still clearly being a descendant of the original Indian strain. It is not yet clear what separates Type 1 and 3 








The talks followed the cancellation of the PM’s planned visit to India last month, which was ditched at the last minute because of the crisis. Mr Johnson sees India as a key post-Brexit ally, both economically and strategically.

The two leaders agreed a ‘2030 roadmap’ covering co-operation across health, climate change, education, science and technology, and defence. It also included a commitment to an ‘enhanced trade partnership’ paving the way for a full free trade agreement aimed at doubling bilateral trade over the next decade.

Mr Johnson said: ‘The UK and India share many fundamental values. The UK is one of the oldest democracies and India is the world’s largest. We are both committed members of the Commonwealth. And there is a living bridge uniting the people of our countries.’

A free trade agreement with New Delhi is seen as a huge prize for the UK Government following Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Ahead of the talks, Mr Johnson announced a £1billion trade deal with India which he said would create more than 6,000 jobs.

A strategic ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific region was one of the key objectives set out in the Government’s recent Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy.

London’s G7 is hit by Indian Covid outbreak: Two members of Indian delegation test positive

Dominic Raab today tried to shrug off the Indian delegation to the G7 foreign ministers’ summit in London going into self-isolation after positive coronavirus cases.

The Foreign Secretary said ‘we are all having to adapt in agile ways’ as he kicked off the second day of the gathering after the dramatic news.

Government sources have confirmed to MailOnline that two members of the Indian delegation have tested positive, and the whole group is now believed to be in isolation as a precaution.

India is not part of the G7 but they are attending the gathering – the first major face-to-face meeting since the pandemic erupted. The delegation is thought to have been exempted from quarantine rules, but have been tested daily.

The cases were picked up by Public Health England last night, before the delegation was due to join G7 meetings at Lancaster House today.

Priti Patel met the Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the Home Office yesterday, although he is not believed to be one of the positive cases. He is now taking part in the meetings remotely.

Another government source said PHE had advised that the UK delegation does not need to isolate, as social distance was observed and masks were worn. During the formal sessions the ministers sit round a table separated by clear screens to minimise risks.

The revelation threatens to throw the summit into chaos. It was meant to be Covid secure and demonstrate that international diplomacy can get back to normal ahead of the full G7 summit in Cornwall next month.

That is due to be attended by US president Joe Biden among other world leaders.

Dr Jaishankar tweeted this morning: ‘Was made aware yesterday evening of exposure to possible Covid positive cases.

‘As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode. That will be the case with the G7 Meeting today as well.’ 

Boris Johnson held talks with Indian PM Narendra Modi over video link yesterday.

The news came amid rising fears about Indian Covid variants, with figures suggesting they now make up one in 10 cases in London. Data from the Sanger Institute, which analyses positive swabs for different variants, suggest the mutant strains spread widely during April.

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