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Ignore lockdown easing to curb Indian Covid variant, health experts urge

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

People should ignore Monday’s easing of lockdown and avoid socialising indoors in pubs and restaurants to prevent the new Covid-19 variant first detected in India sparking a third wave of the disease, health experts say.

A former government chief scientific adviser, a leading public health specialist and the union representing Britain’s doctors are urging the public to stick to meeting outdoors to reduce the risk of catching or spreading the variant.

Prof Sir Mark Walport, a former director of the Wellcome Trust and a chief scientific adviser until 2017, called on the public to be cautious. “My personal judgement is that I will do things outside as far as possible,” he said. “My advice is that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.”

Watch: Which lockdown restrictions have now lifted in England?

Asked by Sophy Ridge on Sky News if that meant he would avoid going inside a pub, he replied: “For the moment, yes.”

Martin McKee, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, backed Walport. He said: “Based on the precautionary principle and on the experience in earlier waves, I am very concerned. Personally I will not be going indoors in bars or restaurants for some time.”

Under the rule changes in England groups of six people or two households will be allowed to meet indoors in homes, pubs, cafes and restaurants for the first time since last autumn. Rules will also be relaxed in Wales and most of Scotland.

The British Medical Association, however, also recommended that people keep meeting outside for the time being because the of threat posed by the new variant.

“We are urging the public, and young people in particular, to take a cautious approach to social and physical contact, to continue practising ‘hands, face, space’ and to meet outdoors wherever possible,” said Dr Richard Jarvis, the co-chair of the BMA’s public health committee.

“People must look at their own personal risk and adjust their activities accordingly. We are asking people to take a cautious approach as we enter the next stage of lockdown.”

Cases linked to the variant first detected in India more than doubled in a week from 520 to 1,313, the most recent official figures show. Bolton, Blackburn, Erewash in Derbyshire and Moray in Scotland have been among the initial hotspots, but cases are now being detected all over the country, including in places such as London, Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridge.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said that the variant could “spread like wildfire” among unvaccinated groups. It is likely to replace the Kent variant as the dominant strain of coronavirus across the UK, he added. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies fears the new strain could be 40 to 50% more transmissible and, if it is, “would lead to a substantial resurgence in hospitalisations [similar to, or larger than, previous peaks]”.

 Related: What threat does Indian Covid variant pose and do vaccines work against it? 

Hancock defended Boris Johnson’s decision to let Monday’s easing of limits on social contact go ahead. Uncertainty about how transmissible the new variant is means that “it’s appropriate to continue down the road map, but people need to be cautious and careful”, he said.

Johnson himself said people should “take this next step with a heavy dose of caution” and called for an increased uptake of twice-weekly testing and vaccination. “I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay,” he said.

“We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising,” he said on the eve of restrictions lifting.

“The current data does not indicate unsustainable pressure on the NHS and our extraordinary vaccination programme will accelerate, with second doses being bought forward to give the most vulnerable maximum protection.”

Some members of the Independent Sage group of medical and scientific experts said, however, that the new variant’s upward trajectory was so worrying that the prime minister should have delayed the relaxation.

Surge testing is under way in areas with the highest number of cases linked to the new variant and expanded vaccination is being used to immunise as many people as possible. A new vaccination centre is opening in Bolton in the next few days to cope with demand. Ministers could again resort to local lockdowns to try to reduce infections in hotspots, Hancock said.

Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said: “It is reassuring that the spike in cases isn’t translating into unmanageable pressures on the NHS at the moment, but we cannot afford to be complacent.”

Comments from Hancock on Sunday that hospitalisations in Bolton mainly involve people eligible for the vaccine who have not taken one have provoked some internal disquiet among Conservative MPs, who privately say ministers should not delay lifting restrictions to protect those who have declined vaccination.

The infection rate in Bolton stands at 254.9 per 100,000, more than ten times the national average. Mark Logan, the Conservative MP for Bolton North East, said the town had endured far longer restrictions than almost anywhere in the country because of local lockdowns that began last year, and demanded that everyone over 18 be vaccinated before the end of May.

Hancock denied that Johnson was too slow to ban flights into the UK from India. It was only added to the red list of high-risk countries from which travel is banned on 23 April, two weeks after its neighbour Pakistan. Critics, including Labour, say Johnson’s refusal to impose a ban sooner was linked to his planned trade mission to India to meet his counterpart, Narendra Modi, allowing thousands of potentially infectious people to arrive in Britain.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, meanwhile, may again allow under-40s to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine in response to the threat from the new variant, the JCVI member Prof Adam Finn said on Sunday. That age group have been advised to have either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna jabs because the risk of blood clots.

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