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.
Last week, the UK saw its biggest rise in Covid cases since early January – helped by the rise of this new mutation. Pictured: Bolton, Greater Manchester
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.
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
Modellers often say they have taken behavioural factors into account, but it’s often not that simple.
‘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.
Thousands of people queued on the streets of Bolton on Saturday after it emerged there were 4,000 available vaccines that ‘must be used today’
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. Pictured: Bolton
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.
Some have suggested the rise of the Indian variant calls into question the fourth and final step out of lockdown, on June 21
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.’