Indian COVID variant puts UK lockdown easing plans in doubt

Coronavirus pharma news roundup

Concerns are emerging in the UK about the spread of the coronavirus variant that has caused a surge in cases in India, prompting warnings that lockdown easing plans may need a rethink.

Latest figures show there are 1,313 cases of the variant in the UK, compared with 520 recorded in the previous week.

Known as B.1.6 17, the World Health Organization has classified the double mutant coronavirus variant as a “variant of concern” after preliminary studies showed it spreads more easily.

But vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News that the plan to further ease lockdown measures on Monday remain in place.

Zahawi said the “vaccines are delivering” and that there is “no evidence” the variant “escapes the vaccines or is more severe in its impact on people.”

From Monday, pubs and restaurants will be reopen indoors and people will be allowed to mix indoors as two households under the “rule of six”.

People will also have the choice whether to socially distance with close family and friends that they meet up with.

On 21st June, the government wants to lift lockdown rules completely, although Zahawi added that this remains under review while the government monitors the situation with the virus.

Wales has already delayed lifting some restrictions because of the Indian variant and professor Paul Hunter, who sits on a number of COVID advisory committees for the World Health Organization, said current figures were around two weeks out of date and would now be higher.

Hunter said that the final lifting of lockdown on 21st June is “in doubt” noting that the variant is spreading in younger, unvaccinated people.

But if cases increased in older people so would hospital admissions, putting pressure on the NHS.

He told Radio 4’s Today programme that the Indian variant was now in most regions of the UK, with the possible exception of Yorkshire and Humber and north-east variant.

The UK government has not ruled out imposing local restrictions where necessary to suppress the spread of variants if they can dodge vaccines.

Zahawi is also considering reducing the gap between vaccine doses for people in areas where the variant is spreading as well as "surge vaccinations" in badly hit areas.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation body representing hospitals and clinics, said: "With growing concern around the spread of the Indian variant of COVID-19, the government must be guided by the data. If there is any indication that the spread is no longer sufficiently under control, it must be prepared to adjust the timetable for easing lockdown, however unpopular that decision may be. There is also the real risk that the virus could mutate further if allowed to spread unchecked."

Latest figures show total coronavirus infections holding steady at around 2,600 new cases a day, with 11 deaths recorded yesterday across the UK.

Figures on hospitalisations from 6 May, the latest available, show there were 120 coronavirus admissions, down from the peak in January when there were more than 4,000 per day.