Just three per cent of Brits infected with the Indian Covid variant were fully vaccinated, official data suggests.
Public Health England analysis shows only 177 out of 5,599 people who caught the mutant strain and presented to A&E had already had both jabs. Almost 3,400 had not yet had their first dose.
Top scientists called the findings ‘incredibly reassuring’. Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘It shows we’ve got the tools to end this.’
Other promising data seemingly underlying the success of the jab blitz shows the age of people testing positive is now just 29, the youngest ever recorded and down from 41 at the start of the year. If the trend stays the same, Professor Hunter said we ‘should be able to manage the third wave without too much pressure on the NHS and without re-imposition of lockdown’.
But plans to go ahead with ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21 hang in the balance because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant, with cautious Government advisers calling for ministers to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality.
The fast-spreading B.1.617.2 strain is now behind up to three quarters of all cases in the UK, and has been found in more than 250 of England’s 300-plus authorities.
Boris Johnson yesterday said No10 ‘may have to wait’ for more data before pressing ahead with June 21, while Matt Hancock told MPs it was still ‘too early’ to say if the roadmap needed to be slowed down.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today insisted it was ‘impossible’ to know how the situation would unfold over the next fortnight. He said ‘there’s nothing in the data that suggests we should move the day’ but refused to rule out local lockdowns and keeping businesses closed in Indian variants hotspots such as Bolton.
Ministers are quietly confident they can press ahead with the route back to normality, given that Britain’s vaccine drive has severed the once impenetrable link between cases and hospitalisations. More than 38million adults have already had one dose, and 24million have had both.
But they are waiting for key data to show just how more transmissible the Indian variant is to give a clearer picture about how much pressure the NHS may come under in the next few months.
If it proves to spread 50 per cent easier than the Kent strain, which triggered the UK’s second wave, then hospitals could once again face huge pressure, experts fear. Vaccines aren’t perfect and haven’t completely broken the link to severe illness, meaning the more people infected, the more people who will need care.
Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London and a member of Independent Sage, said the Indian variant was causing concern and the road map should be delayed by two months to allow millions more to be fully vaccinated.
NHS Test and Trace data yesterday showed the majority of people testing positive for Covid in the UK were in the younger age brackets
PHE data shows how Covid outbreaks are growing across the country. The map on the left shows how around half of England’s 149 upper-tier authorities saw infection rates grow compared to the week before, with areas shaded red witnessing at least a 50 per cent spike in infections. Councils coloured green saw fewer positive tests than the week before. Meanwhile, the map on the right shows exactly the same but for the previous seven-day spell ending May 16
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today insisted it was ‘impossible’ to know how the situation would unfold over the next fortnight
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Certainly we have weakened the link significantly between cases and hospitalisations, but we haven’t broken it.
‘We now have fewer restrictions in England than we’ve had since the pandemic started, so if enough people get infected, even a really small proportion who need hospital can still end up being quite large absolute numbers.’
Asked if it would be ‘very demoralising’ to remain as we are now, she said: ‘I think what’s demoralising is having a third wave. If we can just delay international travel, delay stage four of the road map until we have a much higher proportion of people vaccinated with two doses, we’re in a much, much better position.
‘We’re only two months away from that, it’s not long to wait. What I don’t want is for us to have new restrictions.’
Her comments came after SAGE member Professor John Edmunds yesterday said he would advise Boris Johnson not to take the next step as planned because ‘at the moment it looks a little bit risky’.
Meanwhile, fellow adviser ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang ‘in the balance’. He said the now-dominant strain would trigger a ‘small third wave’ but that the next two or three weeks would be ‘critical’ in deciding whether it was safe to move to step four on the roadmap.
Despite fears the Indian variant could jeopardise lockdown-easing plans, separate surveillance data revealed the median age of people testing positive stood at 29 for the week ending May 19.
This was down from 35 at the start of April and 41 at the beginning of the year.
Compounding the apparent efficacy of the vaccine rollout, analysis now shows that two thirds of people admitted to hospital with the coronavirus are under 65, The Times reports.
Professor Hunter told the newspaper the trend showed ‘the value of immunisation in reducing cases in the older more highly immunised age groups’.
‘If case numbers in the older age groups remain low then hospitalisations will remain low and hopefully we should be able to manage the third wave of infection without too much pressure on the NHS and without re-imposition of lockdown.’
But despite the Prime Minister’s desire to announce an end to social distancing this week, this has been pushed back amid the ongoing threat of the Indian Covid variant.
The Prime Minister has said that he has not seen ‘anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map’, but hinted that the government would wait until the June 14 deadline before announcing a relaxation.
Discussing the next step of the lockdown-easing plan, Mr Kwarteng said ‘there’s nothing in the data that suggests to me that we should move the day’ of the next stage of lifting Covid restrictions on June 21.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The caveat obviously is the data can change. So if scientific evidence data points to an increased hospitalisation rate, increased degree of risk, then we have flexibility to move that date.’
But he added: ‘As of today, as of the data I’ve seen, I didn’t think we will move the date. But I can’t guarantee that on May 28, you will appreciate I cannot guarantee that in three-and-a-half weeks’ time.’
Mr Kwarteng told Sky News: ‘We’ll be looking at the data, we’ve said repeatedly that we won’t make a final decision about the 21st of June until the 14th of June, a week before the established date. So I can’t guarantee one thing or the other.’
He did not rule out keeping businesses closed in the areas worst-impacted by the Indian variant of coronavirus.
Asked on Sky News whether there could be a return to some sort of local lockdown, Mr Kwarteng said ministers were considering ‘all options’.
He said: ‘I repeat what I’ve said before, we’re looking at the data. We want to reopen on the 21st of June, and we’re trying to get to that outcome. But if the data says suggests that it would be unsafe to do that, we may well follow that, we would follow that.’
Despite growing fears, Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) group, told BBC Breakfast that cases will go up but the vaccines are proving to help.
He said: ‘We would expect, with these restrictions being lifted, at some point the R number would go above 1, and it looks like that’s probably what’s happening now, given that we’re starting to see cases going up.
‘But the important thing for us is, given we now have the vaccines, we are in a very different place from, say, in October when we were starting to see cases rising in a concerning way, because hopefully the vaccines can help us along the way, and if we sort of kick the can down the road, as it were, a little bit, we can allow the vaccines to help us and hopefully allow us ultimately to lift restrictions.’
He said ‘it seems like the vaccines work pretty well, particularly after a second dose’ and urged everyone to come forward for both doses of the jab.
‘Obviously the worry is that, because it’s a bit more transmissible, then there is the potential for a further wave of infections and potentially hospital admissions will start to rise again,’ he added.
‘So we really need to try and gather as much evidence as we can over the next week or two to really understand what’s going on with this new variant and how much more it’s spreading, and then obviously try to predict what we expect may happen should this June 21 relaxation go ahead.’
An update from Public Health England last night showed there have been 6,959 cases of the strain confirmed so far, almost doubling from 3,535 this time last week.
It has now been found in 252 local authorities in England out of around 300, showing it has reached most corners of the country.
Dr Jenny Harries, chief of the UK Health Security Agency, said: ‘In most areas in England we do know that the new variant, the variant that originated in India, is taking the place of the 117 variant, so it’s something we need to watch really carefully.’
A weekly update from PHE showed that Bolton in Greater Manchester remains the Indian variant hotspot by a long stretch, with 1,354 cases found there.
Second on the list was Bedford with almost 1,000 fewer than the top spot, at 366. Blackburn, Leicester, Sefton in Merseyside, Wigan, Central Bedfordshire, Manchester and Hillingdon in London have all had more than 100 cases.
While there are dozens of other places where the variant has been seen, almost half have had fewer than five positive tests each and the vast majority have had fewer than 10.
Discussing the country’s situation in a Downing Street press conference last night, Mr Hancock said: ‘The latest estimates are that more than half and potentially as many as three-quarters of all new cases are now of this variant.
‘As we set out our road map we always expected cases to rise, we must remain vigilant.
BOLTON HOSPITAL CHIEF PRAISES VACCINES
Matt Hancock today said vaccines were helping to protect the NHS in Bolton where cases have surged in recent weeks.
In the Downing Street briefing he said the link between the number of cases and the number of hospital admissions remains the critical point, pointing out that only five out of 49 patients were people who had been fully vaccinated – the others were not totally covered.
Mr Hancock said: ‘Earlier today I spoke to Fiona Noden, the chief executive of Bolton Hospital, and her message is very clear. The hospital is functioning well and it is open to all those who need it, but people need to be careful and cautious and follow the rules and take personal responsibility to help to slow the spread.
‘She also said, and I quote: ‘I dread to think where we’d be without the vaccine, so please ask people to come forward and get the jab’.
‘So when you get the call get the jab and make sure you come forward for your second dose so you can get the maximum possible protection.’
‘The aim, of course, is to break the link to hospitalisations and deaths so that cases alone no longer require stringent restrictions on people’s lives.’
He added: ‘The increase in cases remains focused in hotspots and we are doing all we can to tackle this variant wherever it flares up.
‘Over the past six months we now have built a huge testing capacity at our disposal and we are using this to surge testing into the eight hotspot areas and other places where the cases are lower but rising.
‘In the hotspot areas we are surging vaccines, too, for those who are eligible, in Bolton for instance we have done 17,147 vaccinations in the last week.’
Although there are concerns about the variant in Whitehall – Public Health England and SAGE are now convinced it is more infectious than the Kent strain – vaccines appear to be working well against it.
Mr Hancock said that, of 49 people in hospital with the virus in Bolton, only five had been fully vaccinated. Mathematicians said this could mean the jabs are still over 90 per cent effective against the mutated virus.
PHE’s report showed that, although B1617.2 had only made up around 2.5 per cent of all cases since October, since February it appeared to account for 84 per cent.
Its report said: ‘Whilst case numbers remain very low, the proportion of cases which are VOC-21APR-02 (B.1.617.2) has continued to increase… VOC-21APR-02 is likely to be the predominant variant in England although there is regional heterogeneity [differences].’
Mobile testing units have been sent to areas with large numbers of cases and an extra 400,000 swab test kits have been sent to the worst-hit places, with the Army dishing them out on the streets in Bolton.
Boss at the NHS Providers union, Saffron Cordery, said the new figures were ‘deeply concerning’ and added: ‘Data on hospital cases seems to be focused amongst those patients who either haven’t been vaccinated yet or had just one vaccine.
‘This hammers home just how important it is get fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We urge everyone to get their jabs when they’re offered them.’
Public Health England’s report shows that cases of the Indian variant were originally mostly in London but then a huge spike in the North West followed, with it now present in every region of the country
The report shows that the Indian variant, VOC-21APR-02 (pink) now makes up the majority of coronavirus cases in England
More promising data from PHE show that the effects of the variant on vaccinated people are significantly less – out of 5,599 cases only 177 were found to be in people who had had both doses, and only one out of 43 hospital admissions was. Infections, hospitalisations and deaths were all significantly more common in unvaccinated people
|Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases|
|Bedford||366||Stockport||24||Tonbridge and Malling||9||Breckland||<5||Isle of Wight||<5|
|Blackburn with Darwen||361||Watford||24||Wandsworth||9||Colchester||<5||King’s Lynn and West Norfolk||<5|
|Sefton||175||East Northamptonshire||23||County Durham||8||East Staffordshire||<5||Mid Sussex||<5|
|Nottingham||158||Liverpool||23||Maidstone||8||Epsom and Ewell||<5||North Somerset||<5|
|Wigan||113||Slough||23||Reigate and Banstead||8||Exeter||<5||North West Leicestershire||<5|
|Central Bedfordshire||109||Wolverhampton||23||Ribble Valley||8||Halton||<5||Redditch||<5|
|Hillingdon||102||Dudley||20||Vale of White Horse||8||North Hertfordshire||<5||Stoke-on-Trent||<5|
|Ealing||83||Hackney||19||West Oxfordshire||8||Selby||<5||Surrey Heath||<5|
|Hounslow||80||North Lincolnshire||19||Brighton and Hove||7||South Bucks||<5||Tandridge||<5|
|Croydon||76||Barking and Dagenham||18||Gateshead||7||South Cambridgeshire||<5||Waverley||<5|
|Birmingham||68||Newcastle upon Tyne||18||Merton||7||South Norfolk||<5||Winchester||<5|
|Greenwich||64||Mid Suffolk||17||Richmond upon Thames||7||Tamworth||<5||Basingstoke and Deane||<5|
|North Tyneside||58||Southwark||17||Stafford||7||West Suffolk||<5||Cherwell||<5|
|Luton||52||Hyndburn||16||Blaby||6||Bath and North East Somerset||<5||Cornwall||<5|
|Newham||48||Lewisham||16||Broxbourne||6||Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole||<5||Daventry||<5|
|Rochdale||46||St. Helens||16||Eastleigh||6||Chiltern||<5||Derbyshire Dales||<5|
|Unknown||46||Aylesbury Vale||15||Fylde||6||Crawley||<5||Folkestone and Hythe||<5|
|South Northamptonshire||45||Wyre||15||Oadby and Wigston||6||Epping Forest||<5||Hinckley and Bosworth||<5|
|Preston||43||Hammersmith and Fulham||14||Rushcliffe||6||Gloucester||<5||Kettering||<5|
|Coventry||38||Nuneaton and Bedworth||14||Test Valley||6||Gravesham||<5||Lancaster||<5|
|Tower Hamlets||38||Wiltshire||14||Basildon||5||Knowsley||<5||Malvern Hills||<5|
|Trafford||35||Dartford||13||Bracknell Forest||5||Redcar and Cleveland||<5||Middlesbrough||<5|
|Enfield||33||South Ribble||13||Brentwood||5||Somerset West and Taunton||<5||New Forest||<5|
|Lambeth||33||Waltham Forest||13||Calderdale||5||South Lakeland||<5||Newcastle-under-Lyme||<5|
|Haringey||32||Charnwood||12||Cheshire West and Chester||5||Southend-on-Sea||<5||North East Lincolnshire||<5|
|Salford||32||Three Rivers||12||Derby||5||St Albans||<5||North Kesteven||<5|
|Reading||31||West Lancashire||11||Kingston upon Hull, City of||5||Sunderland||<5||Plymouth||<5|
|Redbridge||31||Doncaster||10||Kingston upon Thames||5||Thanet||<5||Rotherham||<5|
|Canterbury||30||Herefordshire, County of||10||Northumberland||5||West Berkshire||<5||Shropshire||<5|
|Tameside||30||Islington||10||Sheffield||5||West Lindsey||<5||South Derbyshire||<5|
|Bristol, City of||28||Kensington and Chelsea||10||South Oxfordshire||5||Worcester||<5||South Holland||<5|
|Swindon||28||Solihull||10||Telford and Wrekin||5||Dover||<5||Tendring||<5|
|Bexley||27||Southampton||10||Tunbridge Wells||5||East Riding of Yorkshire||<5||Thurrock||<5|
|High Peak||26||Dacorum||9||Windsor and Maidenhead||5||Erewash||<5||Wychavon||<5|