Coronavirus UK: Indian variant now dominant, Matt Hancock says

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said today that between half and three quarters of all Covid cases in the UK are now being caused by the Indian variant

The Indian Covid variant now makes up between half and three quarters of all cases in the UK, Matt Hancock said today.

The Health Secretary said in a Downing Street press conference that the fast-spreading strain is now dominant in Britain, taking over from the Kent variant that had been the most common one since Christmas.

He said the new variant was ‘still spreading and the latest estimates are that more than half and potentially as many as three quarters of all new cases are now of this variant’.

An update from Public Health England showed there have been 6,959 cases of the strain confirmed so far, almost doubling from 3,535 this time last week. It has now been found in 252 local authorities in England out of around 300, showing it has reached most corners of the country. 

Dr Jenny Harries, chief of the UK Health Security Agency, said: ‘In most areas in England we do know that the new variant, the variant that originated in India, is taking the place of the 117 variant, so it’s something we need to watch really carefully.’

The surging numbers of cases have cast doubt over whether the June 21 end of lockdown will be able to go ahead as planned.  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted today that No10 may have to wait for more data before pressing ahead with the easing of the final set of lockdown restrictions, while the Health Secretary told MPs it was still ‘too early’ to say if the roadmap needed to be slowed down in the face of the mutant strain.

SAGE adviser Professor Neil Ferguson, aka ‘Professor Lockdown’, said the roadmap now hangs ‘in the balance’ and his colleague Professor John Edmunds said he wouldn’t go ahead with June 21 because it is ‘a little bit too risky’. 

Health chiefs today recorded 3,542 positive coronavirus tests — the highest figure since April 12 and up by 23.2 per cent on last Thursday’s count. It is the second day running cases have risen by a fifth compared to the week before but Dr Harries said it may be caused in part by surge testing in variant hotspots.

A weekly update from Public Health England showed tonight that Bolton in Greater Manchester remains the Indian variant hotspot by a long stretch, with 1,354 cases found there.

Second on the list was Bedford with almost 1,000 fewer than the top spot, at 366. Blackburn, Leicester, Sefton in Merseyside, Wigan, Central Bedfordshire, Manchester and Hillingdon in London have all had more than 100 cases.

While there are dozens of other places where the variant has been seen, almost half have had fewer than five positive tests each and the vast majority have had fewer than 10. 

Mr Hancock said: ‘The latest estimates are that more than half and potentially as many as three-quarters of all new cases are now of this variant.

‘As we set out our road map we always expected cases to rise, we must remain vigilant.

‘The aim, of course, is to break the link to hospitalisations and deaths so that cases alone no longer require stringent restrictions on people’s lives.’

He added: ‘The increase in cases remains focused in hotspots and we are doing all we can to tackle this variant wherever it flares up.’ 

Although there are concerns about the variant in Whitehall – Public Health England and SAGE are now convinced it is more infectious than the Kent strain – vaccines appear to be working well against it.

Mr Hancock said that, of 49 people in hospital with the virus in Bolton, only five had been vaccinated. Mathematicians said this could mean the jabs are still over 90 per cent effective against the mutated virus.      

In its report PHE said: ‘Whilst case numbers remain very low, the proportion of cases which are VOC-21APR-02 (B.1.617.2) has continued to increase… VOC-21APR-02 is likely to be the predominant variant in England although there is regional heterogeneity [differences].’

Cases are only clearly rising in THREE of England’s eight Indian variant hotspots, data shows 

Covid cases are only clearly rising in three of England’s Indian variant hotspots, official statistics show amid warnings that people aged under 21 may be more likely to catch the mutant strain.

Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees and Bedford are the only areas of the eight identified by ministers as being to have seen an obvious rise in infections. 

Burnley has seen a fall in the average number of positive tests being spotted each day, based on the most recent data on the Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard. Outbreaks appear flat in the other four areas: Bolton, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

And the number of beds occupied by Covid patients has remained in single figures for all but one of the areas — Bolton, which saw a fall from 44 to 41 beds on Tuesday. Just one person was in hospital with Covid in the hospital trust covering North Tyneside at the most recent date.

But hospitalisation data is much harder to untangle because some NHS trusts care for larger areas, with multiple hospitals under their jurisdiction. For example, East Lancashire Trust includes hospitals in Burnley and Blackburn, providing one piece of data for both hotspots. 

Experts say admissions in Bolton are currently lower than they would have predicted based on case numbers a fortnight ago, even though rates have crept up over the past month.

Professor Christina Pagel, a member of Independent SAGE, hailed the most recent case numbers as ‘good news’, despite previously saying ministers may need to delay the last stage of lockdown easing on May 17 due to the rapid spread of the Indian variant.

She tweeted: ‘So some good news: cases in some of the new variant hotspots are now coming down — especially in Bolton.’ 

No10 yesterday refused to rule out imposing local lockdowns to tackle the spread of the variant.

Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that scientists were still ‘working to assess how much more transmissible it is’.

But he said: ‘It has gone from being a small minority to a majority variant and that’s clearly of concern.

‘We know it partially evades the immunity generated by vaccines. Thankfully if people have had two doses there’s still a large amount of immunity remaining, but it’s not quite as much as before.

‘Step four is rather in the balance, the data collected in the next two or three weeks will be critical.’ He said by then ministers will be able ‘to come to a firm assessment of whether we can go forward’. 

Professor Ferguson, whose grim modelling warned hundreds of thousands of Brits could die without the first lockdown last March, said it was promising that infection levels were still low despite the new variant.

The latest ONS survey suggested only one in a thousand people in England are Covid-positive.

He added: ‘The key issue on whether we can go forward is will the surge caused by the Indian variant – and we do think there will be a surge – be more than has been already planned in to the relaxation measures.

‘It was always expected that relaxation would lead to a surge in infections and to some extent a small third wave of transmission, that’s inevitable if you allow contact rates in the population to go up, even despite immunity. It’s just we can’t cope with that being too large.’

And he seemingly backed No10’s maverick former chief aide’s devastating Covid takedown, saying it is ‘unarguable’ lives could have been saved in the first wave. 

And Public Health England analysis released today showed cases have ticked up in every region except the East Midlands. Infections rate jumped in 79 of England’s upper-tier authorities in the week ending May 23 — doubling in four parts of the country: Darlington, Wokingham, Oldham and Blackburn with Darwen

Meanwhile, Professor Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told ITV last night: ‘You know, the Indian variant is taking off in a number of places — not everywhere, but a number of places.

‘Luckily we’ve still got low levels, but it is concerning. And we are still not back to normal. We measure people’s contact patterns and we’re still at less than half of our normal contact patterns at the moment. So I think that is helping to keep the lid on it, to some extent.’

NHS bosses have said the next seven days will be ‘crucial’ in assessing whether Covid jabs work.

Though increasing cases are usually followed by rises in hospitalisations and deaths, officials say jabs have broken that once impenetrable link. But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said trusts ‘will be monitoring the data closely’ to ensure the Indian variant hasn’t scuppered the roll-out. 

Hospital admissions (115) jumped by around 11 per cent compared with the previous seven days, according to official statistics.  

Mr Hopson said hospitals in Indian variant hotspots in England were seeing cases rise steadily. 

But they were not increasing ‘at an alarming rate’, and he said: ‘The next seven days will be crucial, and trusts will be monitoring the data closely.’

He added that hospital admissions appeared to be of patients who had not been vaccinated, explaining: ‘This hammers home just how important it is to have a vaccination’.  

Britain’s mammoth vaccine drive has continued at full steam ahead amid the threat of the Indian variant.

Another 387,987 top-up jabs were dished out across the country on Tuesday — taking the UK’s number of fully vaccinated adults to more than 23.6 million. 

Another 186,147 first doses were also administered, with 38.4 million adults — or 72.9 per cent — having had at least one jab. 

England’s roll-out was yesterday expanded to 30 and 31-year-olds. Northern Ireland today began offering jabs to all over-18s. Wales and Scotland have both already started to invite the youngest cohort.

Observing the rise in cases, Professor Ferguson said the increase had been anticipated.

Though he suggested restrictions could be extended beyond June 21, he also reassured that the country’s jabs roll-out meant the UK is in a ‘much better place’ than during the second wave in December.

The professor also suggested the country could cope if the Indian variant was proven to only be 20 to 30 per cent more transmissible — which SAGE scientists have argued is feasible.  

Government advisers sounded the alarm about the Indian variant last month before it became the UK’s dominant strain, saying it may be up to 50 per cent more infectious than the Kent variant.

But scientists have since offered more optimism, believing the true figure to be around half of the initial estimate. Rigorous analysis has also shown vaccines still work against the strain. 

Despite fears the rapid spread of the Indian variant could threaten plans to ease lockdown restrictions next month, Britain’s coronavirus outbreak may not be spiralling out of control.

The number of people falling ill with symptoms of coronavirus has fallen by up to 10 per cent over the last week, according to a symptom-tracking app.

Academics at King’s College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — and 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day on May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively.

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the app, said national figures ‘remain unaffected’, despite numerous measures saying that the outbreak is starting to get bigger with the quick growth of the B.1.617.2 strain.

He claimed cases appeared to be spiking in hotspots including Bolton, Kirklees and Leicester but added: ‘Reassuringly, we aren’t seeing numbers rise in other surrounding areas.’

But the picture on the Covid outbreak in England, as well as Britain, remains a mixed bag.

Daily positive tests in the UK yesterday breached the 3,000 mark for the first time since April, and other surveillance studies have warned that cases are starting to rise across the nation.

Separate Test and Trace figures today showed the number of positive swabs across England fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded in the seven days to May 19 — down from 14,082 in the previous spell. 

However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive.

There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), even though 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England.

Swab positivity rates rose in around a third of the 300-plus authorities dotted across the country but fell in Bolton — Britain’s worst-hit borough, where the Indian variant is known to be rife. 

And Public Health England analysis released today showed cases have ticked up in every region except the East Midlands.

Infections rate jumped in 79 of England’s upper-tier authorities in the week ending May 23 — doubling in four parts of the country: Darlington, Wokingham, Oldham and Blackburn with Darwen. Outbreaks remained flat in 10 areas.

But the PHE data is based on positive tests and looks at data recorded each week, meaning it doesn’t take into account trends that can change day-by-day. Figures can also go up if more tests are carried out.

Dr Doyle said: ‘Covid infection rates have risen across most age groups and regions, but encouragingly the number in hospitals across the country remains low. 

‘However, we are concerned about the outbreak of the variant first discovered in India and in some areas hospitalisations have slightly risen. This is a reminder that we still have a way to go and need to remain cautious.

‘The best way to protect yourself and others is by getting the vaccine as soon as you are eligible.

‘You must have both doses to get the maximum protection against all the variants and even after the jabs you need to practise “hands, face, space, fresh air” to help keep everyone safe.’

For comparison, the King’s College London symptom-tracking app looks at people who become ill. Around a third of infected patients never develop any of the tell-tale warning signs.

Separate data analysed by MailOnline today, from the Department of Health, show that cases may be flat in four of eight Indian variant hotspots: Bolton, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees and Bedford are the only areas of the eight where the disease is rife to have seen an obvious rise in infections.

Burnley has seen a fall in the average number of positive tests being spotted each day, based on the most recent data on the Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard.

But those figures are based on daily cases, which can be skewed easily and are not as reliable. However, scientists still trust them. One Independent SAGE member used them to hail the fact that Bolton’s curve appears to have started to flatten.

The gold-standard coronavirus surveillance project, carried out by the Office for National Statistics and relied upon by ministers, last week warned of a rise in cases. It gets updated tomorrow.

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