The Government has insisted easing restrictions across England on Monday is ‘the safe thing to do’ – despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warning the new Indian variant could be 50% more transmissible and doctors naming it ‘a real worry’.
Health minister Edward Argar said there is ‘no evidence vaccines are ineffective against the new strain or that it will cause more severe illness or more deaths’.
People in England will be able to hug family and friends, travel abroad and enjoy a meal or a pint inside a pub from May 17.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the easing is a ‘real worry’ as only 36 million of the UK’s 66 million-strong population have been given a first vaccine dose.
The BMA’s public health medicine committee co-chairman Dr Richard Jarvis said: ‘With key segments of the population still not vaccinated and clusters of variants, including the rapidly increasing Indian variant, becoming a growing concern, we must approach this next stage of easing lockdown with the utmost caution.
‘It is a real worry that when further measures lift on May 17, the majority of younger people, who are often highly socially mobile and could therefore be most at risk of a more infectious strain, are not yet vaccinated.’
Speaking this morning, Mr Argar told BBC Breakfast: ‘All the evidence so far suggests there is no evidence of 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 with Monday, but keeping everything under review.’
The health minister added that people should take personal responsibility when deciding whether or not to hug loved ones.
He said: ‘You have to take all the facts into consideration. It’s about personal responsibility, it’s about making the right judgment call.’
Minutes of a meeting between the Government’s scientific advisers seen last night claimed it is a ‘realistic possibility that it [the Indian variant] is as much as 50% more transmissible’ than the Kent strain that caused a deadly second wave at the beginning of 2021.
If this was the case, it is likely Monday’s easing of restrictions could lead to ‘a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations similar to, or larger than, previous peaks’, they added.
The deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), Professor Anthony Harnden, has said jabs are ‘almost certainly less effective’ at reducing transmission of the Indian variant.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said that, while the Indian variant is expected to become the most dominant across the country, there is ‘no evidence’ jabs will not be effective against it.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has admitted it is a possibility England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ may be delayed due to the new variant.
The PM said: ‘I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.
‘But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June.’
Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories like this, check our news page.
Get your need-to-know
latest news, feel-good stories, analysis and more