India 'took its eye off the ball with coronavirus' says expert
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Deenan Pillay, Professor of Virology at University College London, issued his warning against a backdrop of rising cases in India, which earlier this month prompted the UK to ban visitors from the country. Mr Johnson earlier this week insisted the UK remains on track to lift all restrictions by Midsummer’s Day in what would be a highly symbolic move.
However, Prof Pillay was sceptical about how realistic the plan is in practice, warning of the risk of “leakage” as a result of a system which, while limiting international travel, still permits people to visit other countries in the green zone, where he said it was quite possible they could come into contact with new strains of COVID-19.
He said: “Although the Government started with saying, we want to go for data be guided by data, not dates, to choose June 21, which is Midsummer’s Day, as a symbolic releasing of everything is actually choosing dates not data.”
Prof Pillay agreed that it was necessary to “put an asterisk” beside the date rather than regarding it as being set in stone.
I think we’ve just got to make sure the government messages this in the right way
Professor Deenan Pillay
He said: “Just imagine, in the same way, there are high rates of infection in India now, there will be other countries which have high rates.
“You look at the world now, globally there are as many infections as ever before going on today as there was before.
“Travel remains a major weakness of this and however much I personally would love to go abroad, you know, I think we’ve just got to make sure the government messages this in the right way.
“Interestingly, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed the change in emphasis from ministers previously being pretty circumspect about travel and saying for instance we should in 2021 we should have staycations etc.
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“Over the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed, very clearly, there is a shift towards almost an acceptance that we’re going to be able to go abroad, all the talk about vaccine passports and so forth.
“And I think that shifted expectations to be honest and I think that raises the potential risk.”
Prof Pillay acknowledged that if previously uncommon variants – such as the one identified in India – became more prevalent in the UK, they would carry with them the potential to change the dynamic significantly.
He added: “It also demonstrates the importance of continuing to do everything.
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“These viruses will only spread within the UK if we allow them to spread – if we’re meeting up indoors, if we’re forgetting about our normal hygiene and mask-wearing, if we forget about widespread testing and contact tracing and so on.
“If we sort of let those things, then that those are the circumstances were imported infections can then take off.
“I should say, there are variants developing all the time so we can’t predict that.
“So for those reasons we’ve got to keep on our guard within the UK as well as we are very concerned about opening up our borders.”
The basic point, Prof Pillay said, was not to set too much store by specific dates.
He said: “Imagine the situation where in a month’s time, the beginning of June, where suddenly they’ve got a country where there looks to be a surge of infections.
“What’s India now, which is a terrible situation, could be somewhere else.
“And, and for that reason, we’ve got to be guided by that rather than the date for opening everything up.”
Speaking earlier this week, Mr Johnson said there would “probably be another wave” of COVID-19 in the UK.
However, he added: “As things stand I think we’ve got a very good chance of really opening up totally on June 21.
“I think the vaccination programme has been so massive that we’ve built up some, what I think, are pretty robust fortifications against the next wave.
“We’ll have to see how strong they really are in due course.”
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