Are we facing a third wave of Covid in the UK?
Indian variant threatens to derail plans to lift lockdown on 21 June
Calls are growing for the government to delay the final step out of lockdown on 21 June, with one scientist suggesting the UK is already in the early stages of a third wave of coronavirus infections.
Just as the country clawed back many of its freedoms last month, the new Indian variant - relabelled as the delta variant by the World Health Organization - has threatened to delay further easing of restrictions.
Despite nearly 65 million vaccinations having been administered, the rapid rise in cases of the B16172 mutation across the country has had scientists concerned.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, has pitched it as “a straight race” between the transmissibility of the new variant and vaccine delivery.
Coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths have been edging upwards. The gov.uk site shows that weekly deaths are up by 45% on last week, cases are up by 29% and hospital admissions are up by 23%. “The dashboard lights that matter are flashing red,” says Red Box’s Patrick Maguire.
Robert Cuffe, BBC head of statistics, says this accounts for less than 5% of what was seen at the end of January. In numbers, the rise in weekly deaths equates to 18 people, while there were 5,239 new cases and 164 new hospitalisations.
But the key reason that the new strain is worrying the government and scientific advisers “is that it seems to be more transmissible than the existing dominant strain in the UK”, says The Telegraph.
Although new cases are “relatively low”, the Indian variant has fuelled “exponential growth”, Professor Ravi Gupta, from the University of Cambridge, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday. The new mutation is thought to account for up to three quarters of new cases in the country.
“Of course the numbers of cases are relatively low at the moment - all waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so the key here is that what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave,” said Gupta, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).
He added that the country was “not too far from reaching the sort of levels of vaccination that would help us contain the virus”, and suggested the government wait until more people have had both jabs before lifting any more restrictions.
More than 39 million people have had their first vaccination against Covid-19 and nearly 26 million have had their second dose. But Professor Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation which advises the government on vaccine priority, has said: “The idea that somehow the job is done is wrong.”
He told the Today programme: “We’ve still got a lot of people out there who have neither had this virus infection nor yet been immunised and that’s why we’re in a vulnerable position right now.”
Scientists are still seeking to determine how quickly the new strain can spread and how effective the current vaccinations are in protecting people against it.
One study, published by Public Health England (PHE) on 22 May, “emphasised the need for two doses”, reports The Independent. It found that there were only “modest differences” in effectiveness by both Pfizer and AstraZeneca against the Indian variant compared with the Kent variant after two doses. But after just one jab, both vaccines were only 33% effective against the India variant and 50% effective against the Kent variant.
Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London and a member of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the results make proceeding with the current roadmap out of lockdown “a very bad idea”.
The waiting game
The final decision on whether restrictions will be lifted will be reached on 14 June. Boris Johnson repeated on Thursday that he hasn’t yet seen anything in the data to derail the 21 June date, but Environment Secretary George Eustice said yesterday “we can't rule anything out”.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, another Sage member, has said more data on hospital admissions and case numbers over the next two weeks would be key to the decision.
As Red Box’s Maguire says: “This one, for once, really will go down to the wire.”