The next step in unlocking the country “hangs in the balance” a top government scientist has said, as the coronavirus variant first identified in India continues to spread.
In the past week, the number of people with the B.1.617.2 strain has doubled from 3,535 to 6,959.
And speaking alongside Matt Hancock at a Downing Street press conference on Thursday, UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries sounded cautious about the easing of coronavirus restrictions next month.
Asked if she agreed with the appraisal given by Imperial College scientist Professor Neil Ferguson – that the next stage of the roadmap “hangs in the balance” – Dr Harries said yes.
“On the roadmap, I absolutely agree with Professor Neil Ferguson. The roadmap works on four principles to go forward, so it’s on the cases, hospitalisations, the effectiveness of the vaccine programme and then new variants.
“So, in many ways we’re looking at the first part and the last part.”
Dr Harries described the most recent data – including the doubling of the India variant – as worrying.
While the authorities “expected some cases to rise as we gradually start to socialise”, she added that proactive testing may also contribute to the recent rise in cases.
“So I think it is really, really just on the cusp at the moment,” Dr Harries continued.
“If we see cases rise, we’re not clear yet whether that is a rise in variant cases taking off or whether it’s actually a rise because we are actively – quite rightly – detecting them and then challenging these chains of transmission.”
During the press conference, Dr Harries showed how the number of cases of COVID was up slightly through May – although hospitalisations were not.
She said this came with vaccinations being “pushed out strongly”.
Sky News political correspondent Joe Pike said the concerns “will be a worry for those in the arts, sport and hospitality industries ahead of 21 June”.
When announcing his roadmap out of lockdown, prime minister Boris Johnson said he would follow “data, not dates”.
After the press conference, Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College, also urged caution while talking to Sky News.
Asked about the doubling of the India variant, Prof Altmann said: “I’m not terribly surprised – I think we’d all seen it coming. Frankly, it’s alarming isn’t it? Because what we’ve essentially done is set back our clock by about a month going back to the kind of figures we were last seeing about a month ago in terms of new cases. So I think it’s troubling.”
And asked if the 21 June reopening should go ahead, the professor said: “Hopefully there’s some quite careful thought and mathematical modelling being done into this. For my taste at the moment, that looks somewhat in doubt.
“We really are balanced on a knife edge, but surely from all that we’ve all seen in the last 13 or 14 months we realise how unforgiving and relentless this virus is.
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“And you can’t joke around with it with half measures.
“And if it looks, for example, like you have a new variant in your country spreading and taking off, it probably is, and you probably want to take that into account.”
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