The Indian Covid variant now accounts for at least one in five infections in England and NHS figures show that five out of the six hotspots have vaccine uptake lower than the national average.
Number 10 today refused to rule out a return to local lockdowns as the mass easing of restrictions in England was tainted by fears that the new variant of the virus will take over and cause a third wave of infections.
Rifts are opening up between ministers and scientists over whether it will be safe to end lockdown as planned on June 21 with top SAGE advisers today admitting they won’t be enjoying new-found freedoms, which saw pubs and restaurants reopen indoors and home visits back on the cards, because of the threat of a huge spike in cases.
Local outbreaks of the alarming new B1617.2 variant have sprung up in Bolton, Blackburn, Sefton in Merseyside, Bedford, Nottingham and Leicester as Public Health England last week confirmed it has found 1,313 cases so far.
Downing Street has admitted the full end of lockdown, scheduled for June 21, could be thrown off course by the variant which could cause a huge spike in infections and hospital admissions in the summer.
Boris Johnson has urged people to adopt a ‘heavy dose of caution’ after lockdown loosened and a Cabinet colleague encouraged revellers to avoid ‘excessive drinking’ with ministers at loggerheads over whether to extend lockdown to battle the strain. The vaccine programme will now go full pace in a bid to try and protect people from the variant, with jabs the last line of defence now that lockdown has all but ended.
At the most recent count the Sanger Institute in London, which is analysing the variants in positive tests, found the Indian variant now makes up 20 per cent of all cases, showing it is edging out the Kent variant, now at 78 per cent.
The Sanger lab found 895 samples containing the variant in those six areas between April 25 and May 8, not including people who had travelled into England from abroad.
But only Sefton is keeping pace with the national vaccine rollout, having got at least one dose to 86 per cent of over-40s, while the England average is 83 per cent.
The five other areas are behind on the measure and Nottingham had reached only 74 per cent of eligible adults by May 9, with only 75 per cent in Leicester.
All but Sefton are also below the national average on getting two doses to everyone over the age of 70 (90 per cent) and four out of the six are behind on the proportion of over-50s to have had both doses.
Although figures suggest low vaccine rates aren’t causing high rates – most cases are in young adults – they will raise concerns that outbreaks could quickly turn deadly if older people aren’t protected. Eighteen people are reported to have been hospitalised with the variant in Bolton, with ‘the majority’ of them not fully vaccinated.
Bolton has taken the vaccine rollout into its own hands and is giving jabs to young adults in a bid to slow the spread of the variant, which scientists fear is more infectious than the Kent strain.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for the same tactic to be used elsewhere but the Government is resisting the idea, insisting that areas keep going with the age-based system, which is now on people in their 30s and which ministers say has been ‘very effective’ so far.
NHS figures show that vaccine uptake among all over-40s, which is at 83 per cent average across England, is below average in all but one (Sefton) of the Indian variant hotspot areas. Although experts do not think the at-risk older age groups are the ones driving outbreaks at the moment, it could be cause for concern if the virus spreads to them
Heat maps of where the Indian variant has become most common (left) and where vaccine uptake is lowest (right) show that the same areas are doing badly on both counts – the North West, the Midlands and London. These are the most urban and most populated parts of the country, which are known to be worse affected by outbreaks and have been throughout the pandemic
Members of the public in Bolton are pictured queueing for coronavirus vaccines after local health chiefs did away with NHS guidance and said any adult could get a jab – the Government has asked the council and NHS not to break from national policy
Boris Johnson is pictured entering Downing Street today. He has refused to rule out a return of local lockdowns if the Indian variant takes off in England
Health officials in Bolton have started a huge vaccination push in a bid to stop a surging outbreak there and got jabs to more than 9,000 people over the weekend.
NHS England data for May 9 show that 81 per cent of people over the age of 40 in Bolton have had at least one vaccine dose, compared to 83 per cent across England.
The uptake is worse in nearby Blackburn where just 78 per cent of eligible people have got a jab.
Both have seen 88 per cent of over-70s get both their vaccines – slightly lower than the 90 per cent national average.
Public Health England figures showed last week that the number of people testing positive for coronavirus – for any variant – doubled in both Bolton and Blackburn between May 2 and May 9.
And data from the Sanger Institute suggests at least 573 of the cases were caused by the B1617.2 variant, with that strain making up 81 per cent of all cases in both areas.
A similar pattern emerged in Bedford, where positive tests doubled and the 99 cases found between April 25 and May 8 made up 81 per cent of all infections; and in Nottingham, which saw a 50 per cent increase with 60 Indian variant cases making up 58 per cent at the latest count.
Both Bedford and Nottingham are behind the national vaccine rollout in terms of first doses given to over-40s and second doses to over-50s.
Sefton in Merseyside is the outlier as one of the Indian variant hotspots but with a better-than-average immunisation programme.
Fears about the variant taking off have led to disagreements over whether vaccines should be given out more widely to try and increase protection in hard-hit areas that could see outbreaks worsen in the coming weeks.
Downing Street today urged health officials not to extend the coronavirus vaccine rollout to younger people and to stick to the priority list advised by experts.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘This is a decision made by the JCVI about how best to deploy the vaccines we have, but we have deployed thousands more additional doses in Bolton so they can do this work of getting vaccinations to people.’
He added: ‘We want every part of the country to abide by the advice set out by the JCVI, it’s this unified approach that has allowed us to proceed so quickly with our vaccine rollout.’
Earlier in the day London Mayor Sadiq Khan and former prime minister Tony Blair had called for the opposite and want jabs targeted at hotspots and given to people of all ages to try and slow down the virus.
In Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea in London, only 58 per cent of all the eligible over-40s had taken up the offer of a vaccine by May 9 – fewer than anywhere else in England.
‘What I’m saying to the Government is there are five boroughs in particular with high numbers of these cases,’ Mr Khan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘What we’d like to see is the vaccine being accelerated in these areas with younger Londoners receiving the vaccine sooner than other parts of London because the early evidence is it does appear that if you receive the vaccine, particularly both doses, you may be less likely to catch it.
‘The spread is less but also the consequences should you test positive are less serious as well.’
Tony Blair told Times Radio that the Government should ‘absolutely’ consider tweaking the rollout to cover younger people in high risk areas quicker.
He added: ‘Taking a more varied approach to the way we do the vaccine rollout at this stage, given the problems and the challenge of Indian variant is absolutely sensible.’
But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng defended the Government sticking to its strategy.
He said on Sky: ‘The Government has very clear guidelines in terms of the ordered way in which we roll out the vaccine.
‘That has been working and has been a very effective rollout, and we would suggest that people should do it in the correct order, in the right way.’
Vaccines prevent 97% of Covid infections from Indian variant, scientist claims – and NO fully vaccinated people in UK have died from the strain
The coronavirus vaccines are 97 per cent effective against infection from the Indian variant, a scientist has claimed.
The lead researcher behind a study on healthcare workers in India said those given one dose of AstraZeneca’s jab enjoyed 97.38 per cent protection from infection.
Their risk of being hospitalised with the strain was just 0.06 per cent, according to the research at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi.
Public Health England estimates the vaccines can prevent about 70 per cent of transmission against the Kent variant, based on real-world data from Britain’s vaccine rollout.
Less is known about how well the jabs will work on the Indian variant because the UK has only recorded 1,313 cases. But the Government has said it is not aware of anyone who has died from the strain after being given both jabs.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed over the weekend that, of the 18 people hospitalised with the variant in hotspot Bolton, just one person was fully vaccinated, although most were eligible.
Mr Hancock said the fully-vaccinated patient had been ‘very frail’ and therefore vulnerable to infection. Another five of the patients had only received their first jab.
Meanwhile, a SAGE member today said that data from lab studies into the effectiveness of vaccines on the new strain were ‘rather promising’.
Sir John Bell, from the University of Oxford which is conducting the research, said the new variant appeared to slightly reduce the ability to neutralise the virus, but added that it was ‘not very great’.
On some areas taking matters into their own hands he added: ‘We’ve got very firm guidelines and we want people to follow those.’
SAGE advisers to the Government have not come out in favour of surge vaccination because it has drawbacks as well as positives.
In documents published last week they said: ‘Increasing regional vaccination in areas where it is prevalent could dampen growth in infections, although it takes several weeks for vaccines to provide protection.
‘The benefits would need to be balanced against the costs of moving vaccines from elsewhere. ‘
And Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said: ‘The two issues with that are that, first of all, we’re really not quite sure how well the vaccines will interrupt transmission, particularly for this new variant.
‘We do know they protect people against getting sick and that’s something we can hold on to and use as a strategy.
‘The other thing is, that after a first dose of these vaccines, it does take two-three weeks at least before that protection begins to emerge, so what you do now is not really going to have much influence over what happens over the next couple of weeks.
‘So for those two reasons we do need to think strategically about what we do with the vaccine doses that we’ve got at the moment over the next two weeks right around the country, in order to minimise the chances of this new variant causing a very major third wave.’
The debate about how to use Britain’s jabs comes as lockdown rules went through a massive relaxation today with thousands of people queuing to get into pubs or flying abroad and theatres, cinemas, galleries and museums reopening for the first time in months.
These venues are expected to be even busier this week because heavy showers and gales are forecast for at least the next ten days, with some areas soaked with a month’s worth of rain in the past week.
But Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a senior member of the SAGE committee, said today that he would not meet indoors ‘at the moment’, despite millions of people now having the opportunity to do so.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think it is reasonable to just be sensible about knowing where transmission is occurring, mostly indoors, mostly in larger gatherings indoors with lots of different people, different families, different communities, and I would just restrict that at the moment personally.’
But he added: ‘I don’t think it’s unreasonable to lift the restrictions – we do need to lift the restrictions at some point, we’ve been in restrictions now for a very long time.’
Referring to today’s new freedoms, Professor Sir Mark Walport, England’s former chief scientific adviser who also sits on SAGE, claimed that just because people are legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean they should.
He told the Guardian: ‘My personal judgement is that I will do things outside as far as possible. My advice is that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.’
SAGE adviser Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, suggested people should avoid going to pubs or restaurants in areas with low vaccine uptake or high Indian variant case numbers.
He told LBC Radio he would only dine indoors if the establishment ‘was suitably organised and it looked okay and was in an area of low prevalence and the clientele was very old [and therefore mostly vaccinated].’ He added: ‘I’ll certainly hug my children and grandchildren and others very close to me. But will I be hugging strangers? No’.
Sir John Bell, emeritus professor of medicine at Oxford University and prominent SAGE member, urged people to use their newfound freedoms ‘cautiously’. He told The Times: ‘I don’t want to be a party pooper but the most important thing is not to prolong this any longer than we absolutely have to, so going about this cautiously could be quite helpful to everybody.’
While Dr Zubaida Haque, from Independent Sage, told BBC Essex that with the India variant in circulation, indoor mixing for the next 2-3 weeks ‘is a really dangerous idea’ and could lead to ‘thousands of hospitalisations’.
Libby Jones, right, with her colleague Shannon Maiden, both nurses from Great Ormond Street hospital who have just finished an overnight shift, have a pint of cider at the Shakespeare’s Head pub
Paddy enjoys a couple of drinks and a Full English at The Square Peg pub in Birmingham this morning
Passengers prepare to board an easyJet flight to Faro, Portugal, at Gatwick Airport in West Sussex after the ban on international leisure travel for leisure ended
May Morris is hugged by her granddaughter Francesca Royle for the first time in months this morning in Carlisle
Staff members clean seats at Vue Cinema in Leicester Square during its reopening today
People in Bolton queue again this morning for Covid-19 vaccination at the ESSA Academy in the Lever’s Edge area of the town where the Indian variant of the virus has got a grip
Angela Sykes, Senior Yoga Teacher at Yoga Kula in Leeds, leads a face to face yoga class for the first time since October 2020
Great to be back! Juliet Arthur (left) and Jane Harrison (right) enjoy their first Sauna at the Laboratory Spa and Health Club in North London
People enjoying physical training sessions inside at STK Fitness South Tyneside this morning as they held their first indoor session since covid restrictions have been lifted
Stars of the West End Noah Thomas and Shane Richie of Everybodys Talking About Jamie officially reopen London’s arts and culture district in Piccadilly Circus as government Covid-19 restriction ease
The scientists spoke out this morning after a guarded statement before revellers packed into pubs to celebrate the lifting of restrictions, where the Prime Minister said the emergence of the Indian strain of coronavirus meant the restored freedoms should be exercised carefully.
What can people in England do from May 17?
Can people come over to my house again?
Yes. Up to six people from multiple households or an unlimited number of people from two households will be allowed to visit you inside your house again.
Can people stay over at my house again?
Yes. People from outside your household will be allowed to stay overnight, as long as you stick to within the rule of six or two households.
Can I still meet people outside?
Yes. You will now be able to meet in groups of up to 30 people outside. Bigger groups will be illegal. Until May 17, you can still only meet outside in groups of six.
A member of bar staff wearing a face masks serves drink in a pub in East London in July 2020
Can I hug my friends and family again?
Yes. The Government has said you can hug ‘close friends and family’ from outside your own household – for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.
However, people are being urged to be ‘exercise their own personal judgement in line with the risks.’ There is no legal definition on who ‘close friends and family’ are.
The Government also said wider social distancing rules will remain in place in adult social care, medical, retail, hospitality and business settings.
Can you sit inside a pub again?
Yes, indoor hospitality will resume – so you can sit inside a pub or restaurant with people from other households, as long as the rule of six (or two households) is met.
Will there be a substantial meal or curfew requirement for pubs?
No. As with step two on April 12, venues will not have to serve a substantial meal with alcoholic drinks; nor will there be a curfew.
An audience sit at the Pavilion theatre in Weymouth for a pantomime in December last year
Will you be able to stand at the bar?
No. Customers will still have to order, eat and drink while seated at a hospitality venue – even though they will now be allowed inside.
Will indoor entertainment venues now be allowed to reopen?
Yes. Cinemas, theatres, museums and indoor children’s play areas will all be allowed to reopen, but must follow guidelines on social distancing and face masks.
Concert halls, conference centres and sports stadia will also be allowed to reopen, with larger events in all venues able to resume with capacity limits (see below).
Will venues face capacity limits?
Yes. Larger performances and sporting events will be capped in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half-full, whichever is a lower number. For outdoor venues the cap will be 4,000 people or half-full – again, whichever is lower.
In the largest outdoor seated venues, where crowds can be spread out, up to 10,000 people will be able to attend – or a quarter-full, whichever is lower.
Football fans at Wembley Stadium at a pilot event for the FA Cup semi-final last month
Will social distancing and face masks rules remain for now?
Yes. The one-metre (3ft) rule remains in place in public settings such as pubs, shops and restaurants. You should wear a face mask when walking around these places.
What about children wearing masks in schools?
Secondary school children will no longer have to wear face masks in classrooms and corridors from May 17. However, those aged 11 and above will still be required to wear the masks in public settings such as shops, unless they have a medical exemption.
Ministers said infection rates among students and staff continue to decrease in line with wider community transmission, but twice weekly home testing will remain.
Will students be able to attend university lectures in person again?
Yes. All university students in England can return to campus next week for in-person teaching. They will be expected to get tested for Covid-19 twice a week.
Most students, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to travel back to term-time accommodation as part of the third national lockdown in January.
Students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8. But it is estimated that about half of university students have not been eligible to return to in-person lessons.
Cinema-goers in their seats for a film at the Odeon Leicester Square in London last August
Can I go on holiday abroad again?
Yes, but with many restrictions. Last Friday, the UK Government cleared just 12 destinations for quarantine-free tourist trips for Britons from May 17.
However, many of the destinations are remote islands or have very strict entry measures or blanket bans on UK tourists, further reducing the list of options.
Portugal and Gibraltar are the only countries on the ‘green list‘ that most Britons will realistically be able to visit for a warm weather holiday this month.
You can technically also go on holiday to ‘amber list’ and ‘red list’ countries again too, but you will need to complete a period of quarantine as follows:
For amber list, you must quarantine at home for ten days on your return and take a PCR test on days two and eight – as well as a lateral flow test before the return flight.
Or there is an alternative option that you could pay for an additional ‘Test to Release’ on day five to end self-isolation early. There is also a chance the country turns red.
Those returning from a red list country must stay in a government-approved quarantine hotel for 11 nights upon their return at a cost of £1,750.
Will there be a new limit on wedding numbers?
Yes. Up to 30 people will now be able to attend weddings. This limit will also apply to other types of significant life events including bar mitzvahs and christenings.
Will funerals also now be limited to 30 people?
No. There will now be no limit of the number of mourners at funerals, although the venue must operate in a socially distanced way and within capacity guidelines.
Travellers arrive at London Heathrow Airport on May 3. Non-essential travel is set to reopen
Can you stay overnight somewhere with people from another family?
Yes. The rest of the accommodation sector will now reopen, including hotels, hostels and B&Bs – and people from different households can share the same room.
Up until May 17, if you want to stay at a hotel or self-catering accommodation, you must only do so with members of your own household or support bubble.
Can I go to indoor sport classes now?
Yes. All indoor adult group sports and exercise classes will be allowed again, five weeks after gyms were allowed to reopen under step two on April 12.
Will closed parts of leisure centres now be allowed to reopen?
Yes. Saunas and steam rooms will now be allowed to reopen, following on from swimming pools and gyms on April 12.
There will be no more limits on mourners at funerals. Above: File picture of a funeral last July
Will there be limits on numbers in support groups?
Yes. The Government has said 30 people will now be able to attend a support group or parent and child group. The limit does not include children aged under five.
Will restrictions on care home visiting be changed?
Yes. Care home visiting will be eased further, with residents able to have up to five named visitors and more freedom to make ‘low risk visits’ out of the home.
Will the guidance on working from home change?
No. People are still being advised to ‘continue to work from home where they can’.
Hugs with family and friends will be allowed again from May 17 (file picture posed by models)
What is the exact time that the rules change on May 17?
Unconfirmed. This is not yet clear, but the April 12 rule change towards step two came in at midnight, so it is likely this will be the same for May 18.
Are there businesses that still cannot reopen?
Yes. Nightclubs are the only businesses that must remain shut until at least June 21.
Is there a confirmed date for when all Covid rules will cease?
Not yet. The Government hopes that on June 21 it will be able to drop all legal limits on social contact, but this will be confirmed nearer the time.
Before this date, the Government will complete a review of social distancing and other long-term measures such as face masks and guidance on working from home.
All university students in England can return to campus next week for in-person teaching (file)
Why can we now move into Step 3 on May 17?
The Government has set four tests to further ease restrictions, which have now been met. These are that:
- The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully;
- Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated;
- Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS;
- Assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.
It also comes after the UK Chief Medical Officers confirmed this morning that the UK Covid-19 alert level should move from level four to level three.
Tory MPs however called on Mr Johnson to reject warnings from scientists that lockdown curbs may have to remain in place longer because of the new variant. Britain recorded four new daily Covid deaths and 1,926 cases yesterday as Matt Hancock urged people to hug ‘carefully’ and get jabbed to prevent the new Indian strain spreading ‘like wildfire’.
Amid rising cases in pockets of the north-west because of the Indian strain of Covid, Mr Hancock said that most of the 18 people hospitalised in Bolton ‘haven’t had the jab but are eligible’, with the aim now to administer up to 1million jabs per days as soon as possible and encourage more people to take it.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has insisted he is ‘very confident’ all coronavirus restrictions will be eased on June 21 – before admitting there are ‘no cast iron guarantees’
Asked if the opening up this Monday was going too far, Professor Graham Medley told LBC: ‘Well that’s a Government decision, my job is …to kind of assess the risks, and then the Government’s job is to manage them.
‘There has always been a risk that if we have another wave of infection between now and the end of the vaccination programme that we will end up with large numbers of people in hospital.
‘This new variant does seem to be more transmissible, and so it’s just increased that risk a bit.’
He said there was ‘some suggestion’ that vaccines might be slightly weakened against the Indian variant ‘but there’s no clear data to suggest that so I think we are working to the positive at the moment, that the vaccine is going to work.’
On whether he would go to a pub or restaurant indoors on Monday, he said: ‘If it was suitably organised, and it looks OK and I was in an area with low prevalence and the clientele was very old, then I would think ‘OK, fair enough, they’ve all been vaccinated’.
‘I think it’s about individual risks and people taking that choice, which is different from what the Government has to do which is to avoid the risk of large numbers of people in hospital again.
There is a risk that the variant first identified in India could be transmitted by people travelling out of the UK, Sir Jeremy Farrar said.
The director of the Wellcome Trust told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Britain is a very connected, and very small country and the chance of local cases becoming regional and then regional becoming national is very clear.
‘And it is also connected internationally and I think that’s also a concern not only for importation of new variants coming into the country, but also people travelling out of the country – there is a risk that this variant B.617 could be transmitted from the UK now.
‘I think travel should still be very cautious and only when absolutely essential.
‘But the only way to stop these variants occurring is to drive down transmission.’
He added: ‘The biggest risk to countries like the UK – who have done very well with vaccine rollout – is variants arising from anywhere in the world and then spreading around the world when they have a biological advantage.
‘So driving down transmission in this country is essential, but so is it in the rest of the world, and that means driving down transmission and making vaccines available globally.’
Sir Jeremy warned that restrictions may have to be reversed if the new variant ‘escapes’ protection afforded to people by the Covid-19 vaccines.
‘The new variant that has come, the B.167, is becoming dominant in parts of the UK,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘Yet vaccination across the country has been extraordinarily successful.
‘I think we will see an increase of cases and infections over the coming weeks as some of the restrictions are lifted, but I think the key question is whether we have decoupled increased transmission and number of people who do get infected from the number of people that get ill and need to go into hospital or with long Covid.
‘If we’ve decoupled them, then I think the country can cope with a marginal degree of an increase in transmission.
‘So that is the key question and to be honest, we don’t know that today and that is why I think a very careful lifting is reasonable, but we may have to reverse that if there is escape from the vaccine.’
He added: ‘I just think we’re at this point where we’ve lifted restrictions, and yet we don’t have that full amount of information – I think it is reasonable to lift them today, but I do believe all of us need to be really, really careful.’
The government’s Covid dashboard showed there was an eight per cent increase in cases over last week, as most of the UK prepares to loosen Covid restrictions tomorrow.
The UK’s daily death toll has doubled on last week, from two on May 9 to four yesterday – bringing the UK total to 127,679 dead. There were a reported 129 people on ventilation in hospital in the UK and 991 people currently hospitalised due to virus, as of Thursday May 13 – the latest figures available.
From Monday, pubs, restaurants and cafes can serve customers indoors, cinemas and hotels can reopen and people can embrace loved ones from other households for the first time in more than a year.
But health experts have told Britons to ignore Government advice and stay outside, despite today’s relaxation of lockdown rules.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Sage scientific advisory group, warned the pandemic was at a ‘perilous moment’ and it was ‘extremely important’ to keep a close eye on the numbers over the next few weeks.
‘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.’
When asked by Sky News’ Sophie Ridge if that meant he would be staying outside, he replied: ‘Outside for the moment, yes.’
And professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Martin McKee, agreed, telling the Guardian: ‘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.
Matt Hancock insisted ministers would not allow the new variant to ‘spread like wildfire’ and suggested only the fully vaccinated should embrace, and even then outdoors.
And the Health Secretary infuriated travel firms by warning against trips abroad, despite today’s lifting of the ban on foreign holidays.
Sir Graham Brady, a senior Tory MP, urged the Prime Minister not to ‘panic’ over the new variant, which is still rare in the UK.
And his colleague Iain Duncan Smith said it was ‘bonkers’ to even consider further delays to reopening when evidence suggested existing vaccines worked against the Indian strain.
Today’s easing of Covid curbs is the biggest since the latest lockdown began in January.
Hotels and B&Bs can reopen to take advantage of the lifting of the ban on overnight stays while cinemas, museums and soft play centres can reopen their doors. The £5,000 fines for taking a foreign holiday will be scrapped.
Economists believe that families could splash out more than £800million this week as they celebrate the chance to meet loved ones again for the first time in months.
However Mr Johnson warned: ‘Together we have reached another milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown, but we must take this next step with a heavy dose of caution.
‘We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising.’
A week ago he declared Britain was on track to lift all remaining Covid curbs on June 21. But he rowed back from the pledge on Friday, saying the emergence of the new variant meant there was now ‘a real risk of disruption’.
The dramatic shift in tone followed a warning from government scientists that the fast-spreading variant could spark a surge in cases, especially with the resumption of indoor socialising.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said early data on the effectiveness of the vaccines on the Indian variant looked ‘OK’.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain said: ‘People are getting in a panic about this new variant, when we should be celebrating the fact that the vaccines work – it is bonkers.
‘Ministers have to avoid the Corporal Jones mentality, tell the scientists to get back to their labs and get on with giving people back their freedom.’
With the Foreign Office now advising against travel to Israel, Portugal is the only sizeable ‘green list’ destination for British travellers looking to use their new freedom.
Government sources said the release of an updated version of the NHS app did not mean Covid passports would be introduced domestically.
Those who are eligible for a vaccine in Bolton are being urged to take up the offer to guard against the Indian variant, the Business Secretary said.
Kwasi Kwarteng said he did not want to ‘stigmatise people’ over alleged vaccine hesitancy, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘What we are trying to do in Bolton is encourage people who haven’t taken the vaccine to do so.
‘I think that is being more effective – certainly at the beginning of the year, there was a certain degree of resistance to taking the vaccine.
‘We’re not exactly where we want to be among certain communities but I think the take-up has been much greater in the last few months and more and more people are convinced that this is the way to keep themselves and their families safe.’
He added: ‘I would urge them (those who are eligible) very clearly to take up the vaccine.’
Mr Kwarteng defended the Government’s timing when adding India to the red list of countries where returning travellers are required to quarantine in a hotel, and said he was ‘very confident’ vaccines would protect against the variant first discovered in the South Asian country.
Asked whether the UK was ‘too slow’ to close its borders to India, the Business Secretary told LBC radio: ‘I don’t think we were.
‘India was put on the red list on April 23 – before the variant was even identified we could see that there was something wrong.
‘And even if you arrived from India before April 23, you had to have a quarantine and there were measures in place to restrict the danger.
‘It is easy with hindsight to say things could have been better or quicker and all the rest of it, but I think there was a balanced approach.
‘I think April 23 was fairly early – a month ago nearly – and we’ve managed to contain this variant, partly – principally actually – because of the rollout.
‘The rollout has been very successful, something like 36 million people so far have had the first dose, 20 million have had two doses, and we are very confident that the vaccination will deal with the Indian variant as it has done with other variants of coronavirus.’
Dr Helen Wall, who is leading the vaccination effort in Bolton, said that over the weekend more than 6,200 vaccines were administered in the area.
Long queues of people were seen waiting for vaccines in the region – which is one of the places where the new variant of concern first identified in India has been spreading.
‘We’re seeing people coming forward that clearly had the option to have the jab for some time – older people, disabled people – and they’ve chosen to come forward now,’ Dr Wall told BBC Breakfast.
‘I think in part that’s because we brought this into the community as a trusted place, but also the things that are going on in Bolton are quite worrying for people and I think that’s given some push to people coming forward now for the vaccine.’
She said before the weekend there were around 10,000 people in the area in the highest priority groups – those deemed to be clinically vulnerable and the over-50s – who were yet to be vaccinated, but added: ‘I’m hoping that we’ve made a big dent into that now’.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said there were ‘concerns’ about small numbers of older people who are yet to take up their vaccine offer.
‘The biggest risk comes from, if there are large numbers of older people who are unvaccinated,’ he told Times Radio.
‘Now the good news is we’ve done very well with the vaccine take-up but there is a very small number who are eligible for the vaccine, who actually haven’t taken it and surprise, surprise, as the Secretary of State was saying yesterday, that’s the majority of cases that we are now seeing.
‘And as he said there were five people who’ve had a single dose in hospital, and only one person who’s had a double dose – so that does suggest that Sir John Bell is correct when he says that actually the vaccine is really efficacious.
‘The real issue is that we know that there are communities of people who haven’t been vaccinated and who are eligible – and we know there’s a link for example to deprivation, we know there’s a link to ethnicity.’
Asked about the June 21 plans possibly being delayed, Professor Adam Finn suggested to Sky News there was a possibility of things turning out differently to what was planned.
‘That’s been the story all the way through, that things don’t always turn out the way you expect,’ he said. ‘You lay down plans and then something changes, and I think we’re still in a place where that is perfectly likely to happen.
‘I really hope that these current concerns around this variant evaporate, that everything goes to plan, but I think we just have to accept the possibility that we’re in for another big wave and that we will have to change what we’re doing.
‘That’s not good news for people in businesses I know, but it’s the reality… We’re faced with real uncertainty here.’
Sunny Jouhal, General Manager of the lastminute.com London Eye, stands on top of a pod, 135 metres above the Thames to celebrate the re-opening of the attraction
People queue to get checked into the Tate Modern gallery as the doors are opened for the first time in months and all entry is by booked tickets
Happy hug day! Early morning swimmers in Sunderland were among the first to take advantage of the easing, greeting each other on Seaburn beach with a dawn embrace
Charlotte Griffiths, 25, with her three-year-old son Robert, from Morpeth, Northumberland, at the Great North Museum in Newcastle today
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden at the Tate Modern in London where the public arrived for the first time since 2020
The National Youth Choir of Scotland, with founder and conductor Christopher Bell meet on Calton Hill, Edinburgh. Most of Scotland moves to Level 2 restrictions enabling up to 30 people to meet outside to sing
Soft plays return today as children head back into Hullabaloo at The Sherriff Centre in West Hampstead, North West London
How concerned should we be about the Indian variant? Rapid spread could put the end of Covid curbs in jeopardy – but experts say there is no need to panic
It was a distinctly gloomy end to a week that had, at its start, seemed filled with promise.
On Friday, the Prime Minister warned his plans to end all Covid curbs were in jeopardy due to the rapid spread of the Indian variant of Covid-19.
The Government was ‘taking nothing off the table’ in the fight against it.
Scientists speaking to The Mail on Sunday say the Prime Minister is right to be cautious.
Last week, the UK saw its biggest rise in Covid cases since early January – helped by the rise of this new mutation.
As one expert warned: ‘A third wave of infections is already upon us.’
Crucially, Government scientists have said the Indian variant was ‘up to 50 per cent more infectious than the Kent variant’ – the latter being the most prevalent version of the virus in the UK at present.
A Warwick University model of a more infectious variant after lockdown is completely lifted on June 21 suggests that any more than a 30 per cent increase in transmissibility compared to the Kent variant could lead to an August peak of daily hospital admissions that is higher than either the first or second wave. In a worst-case scenario with a variant 50 per cent more transmissible, hospital admissions could surge to 10,000 per day or even double that (Thick lines indicate the central estimate while the thin lines are possible upper limits known as confidence intervals)
Experts say the elderly and clinically vulnerable are now well protected through vaccination, but argue that a rise in cases could make the rare occasion where vaccines don’t work more common.
Experts also argue that a rise in infections could lead to the virus reaching pockets of vulnerable, unvaccinated people across the country – those who opted not to have the jab, for instance.
All this could lead to a new wave of infections – which the Government advisory body SAGE warned could be as large as the first wave.
But last night, an intriguing theory began to circulate: could the reason the new variant is spreading so rapidly in certain hot-spots be simply due to behavioural factors?
The mutation arrived via travellers returning from India, into multi-generational homes in locations like Bolton, Greater Manchester, Blackburn in Lancashire, and Sefton in Merseyside.
These regions have seen a rapid spread through these households, and among those employed in industries where social distancing may be harder, and home working not an option.
However data suggests that, once it gets outside of these communities, the Indian variant does not spread quite as rapidly. University of Leicester virologist Prof Julian Tang said: ‘When you look at transmissibility, you have to be very careful.
Modellers often say they have taken behavioural factors into account, but it’s often not that simple.
Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day
The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July – up to around 45,000 – compared to the current 845
The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible – which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January
‘We saw this with the Kent variant last winter – the most rapid spread was seen in areas that were released into Tier Two after the November lockdown.
‘Places like London had the least restrictions, and the most mixing, so we saw the highest transmission of that variant.
‘This would indicate it wasn’t to do with any inherent genetic quality of the virus, but more due to the environment it was placed in. The same could be true of the Indian variant.
‘It could have genetic changes that make it a bit more transmissible, but without properly looking at the virus in a lab setting, it’s impossible to say.’
Crucially, at present, there is no evidence to suggest Covid vaccines are ineffective against the Indian variant.
On Friday, Public Health England confirmed that between May 5 and May 12, out of a total of 97 Covid deaths during that period, four deaths were linked to the mutation.
However, fully vaccinated Britons still have a very low risk of becoming seriously ill if they catch it, experts believe. This has, so far, been reflected in the data.
While 12 per cent more Covid cases were reported last week than the week before – just over 2,200 – hospitalisations have continued to fall.
Now, a little more than 1,000 people are in hospital with the virus in the UK. Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘This variant is going to spread widely. But the most important question is whether more people are going to end up in hospital as a result.
‘Right now, there’s nothing to suggest that is happening.’
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said the rise of the variant was reason to be cautious but maintained there was no need to panic.
He said: ‘All indications are that the vaccines are going to continue to do their job.’
On Friday, the Government announced it would be stepping up vaccination efforts in hotspots. People over 50 living in areas of high infection will be offered their second dose of the vaccine early.
A study published last week by Cambridge University scientists, found that 33 staff members of a care home in New Delhi, who were all fully vaccinated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, tested positive for the Indian variant – though none of the staff members was seriously ill as a result of infection.
Scientists involved in the study still say the findings were ‘worrying’. Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University, said: ‘We thought everyone would be protected [but] the virus was able to get around the vaccine.’
But others have stressed the need for calm. Prof Hunter said: ‘There is reasonable evidence to suggest it can lead to infections in vaccinated people, but that doesn’t really matter unless you get seriously ill.’
What’s more, there is nothing to suggest fully vaccinated people in the UK are being infected with the Indian variant. In Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, cases have risen sharply in younger groups.
But, in the over-60s, the majority of whom should have had both jabs, infections are holding steady. Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said it was possible vaccines were working as a ‘firebreak’, protecting over-45s from infection.
With much still unknown about the variant, scientists say the next step out of lockdown needs to be taken with caution.
Government scientists say a ‘significant resurgence of hospitalisations’ is possible as a result of easing restrictions.
From tomorrow, indoor social mixing will be allowed for the first time in more than five months.
Prof Hunter said: ‘Monday’s relaxations are a biggie. Even without this new variant, meeting indoors was always going to be a nervous point in the plan because the majority of infections take place indoors.
‘We are going to find out very soon if it leads to a rise in hospitalisations.’
Prof Young says a slow and steady approach in the next few weeks will be important. ‘I don’t think there’s any reason to say tomorrow’s easing shouldn’t take place, but it needs to be done cautiously.’
Some have suggested the rise of the Indian variant calls into question the fourth and final step out of lockdown, on June 21.
If there were a wave, as some have suggested, as big at the first, then the Government would presumably have no other option.
Prof Young, though, doesn’t see this happening, saying. ‘Any rise in hospitalisations and deaths we see won’t be anywhere near previous waves because we have the vaccines now.
‘While it is still spreading we have to be cautious, but I don’t think variants should stop us getting back to some sort of normality.’