Race to beat Indian virus variant as jabs rolled out to over-35s

Johnson: Indian variant could pose ‘disruption’ to Step 4 in June

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Alarm over the new Covid strain has cast a cloud over Britain’s fightback, but senior MPs urged the PM to “believe in the vaccination programme” and stick to the roadmap. The Government is set to announce this week that all over-35s will be able to get a vaccine. When it was offered to those aged over 38 last Thursday, more than 600,000 appointments were made within 48 hours. But MPs were angered that despite the success of the programme, the Prime Minister said the new outbreak could hijack plans to lift lockdown measures on June 21.

Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the powerful 1922 Committee which represents Tory MPs, warned: “We can’t afford to panic. We need to keep a sensible approach to unlocking and free up the economy and society to return to normal.”

The next phase of lifting lockdown, which will allow people to dine and drink indoors at restaurants and pubs, will go ahead as planned tomorrow.

Mr Johnson warned at a sombre press conference on Friday: “This new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and make it more difficult to move to Step Four in June.”

The majority of cases of the Indian variant have been in Bolton, Blackburn, Bedford and Merseyside.

Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, is like Sir Graham a member of the Covid Recovery Group.

He said: “All viruses mutate and there will always be new variants.

“It was inevitable that the lockdown fanatics and control freaks at Sage and PHE would try this tactic to frighten the country and scare the Government into retaining lockdown measures.

“The Government must stand up to them and believe in the vaccination programme.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, which represents bars, restaurants, coffee shops and tourist attractions, said the disruption was undermining confidence.

She said the economy would suffer the financial equivalent of “long Covid”.

“The critical thing is that we need the Prime Minister to confirm as soon as possible that restrictions will be lifted on June 21,” she said.

Uncertainty, she added, “undermines consumer confidence, business confidence and also confidence for employees who are wanting to make the step back into work, or perhaps change career to come off furlough. The Government can take a big step forward by ending that uncertainty and confirming now that June 21 is Freedom Day”.

She said that government financial support tapers from July 1, and there were already billions in rent and loan debt.

She said: “Unless we can get that addressed, we will have an economic long Covid as well as a health long Covid.”

Lucy Bonner, landlady of the Brewery Tap in rural East Herts added: “Publicans have spent huge sums on providing safe spaces to dine and drink and we certainly can’t afford any delays to the roadmap now.”

But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said Britain should be optimistic about its economic recovery.

Mr Kwarteng said: “Since we started reopening…shoppers are flocking back to the high street, outdoor restaurant bookings have been rising – it’s no wonder the Bank of England has predicted a bumper year of growth ahead.”

And health minister Edward Argar insisted the Government is acting “coolly” in the face of the new variant.

He said: “The evidence so far suggests there is no increased severity of illness or that it evades the vaccine. So at the moment, on the basis of the evidence, we are doing the right thing – coolly, calmly continuing, but keeping everything under review.”

There are also concerns that some vulnerable groups are still not taking the vaccine which has been linked to the recent mini outbreak in the North West.

Dr Francis Andrews, medical director at the Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, said a majority of the sick patients had not been vaccinated but were eligible. He urged everyone in the area who was offered the vaccine to have it.

The government is pressing ahead with the vaccine rollout, with people in England aged over 35 expected to be able to book their vaccinations next week as part of the biggest rollout in health service history.

More than 36 million people have now had one jab, and just under 20 million have received two. Home Secretary Priti Patel was among those receiving a jab yesterday.

It means more than two thirds of people aged 50 and above have been fully vaccinated with two doses, and more than three quarters of people aged between 40 and 49 have had first doses.

A senior Whitehall source said: “We are making excellent progress with the vaccination programme and expect to open up to the over-35s next week.”

As of yesterday morning, there were a further seven Covid deaths reported, bringing the UK total to 127,675.

A further 2,027 lab-confirmed cases were reported in the UK.

Recent polling showed that while the majority wanted a return to normal, those happiest for lockdown to stay in place were an affluent minority.

The study by King’s College London and the University of Bristol, identified three key groups in society – the so-called Keen (52 percent) who want to get back to normal, the Concerned (34 percent) who are worried about doing so, and the Content (14 percent).

The research found that people in the Content group are financially and educationally better off than those Keen or Concerned.

More than four out of 10 (43 percent) of the Content have a university degree – compared to just 29 percent of the Keen and 31 percent of the Concerned – and 53 percent are on a household income of more than £35,000 a year.

Sir Graham said: “This research shows that while a small, well-off, well-educated group has been able to save during lockdown, enjoys working from home and doesn’t mind not seeing as many people as before, this is absolutely not the reality for most people.”

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