Freedom Day on a knife edge: Just 3% of Brits infected with the Indian Covid variant were fully vaccinated but the boffins are still counselling caution
- PHE analysis shows only 177 out of 5,599 people who caught the mutant strain had already had both jabs
- Top scientists called the findings ‘incredibly reassuring’, bolstering the case that jabs will keep Covid at bay
- Average age of testing positive is now 29, down from 35 at the start of April and 41 at the start of the year
Just three per cent of Brits infected with the Indian Covid variant were fully vaccinated, according to official data that bolsters hopes ‘Freedom Day’ can still go ahead next month – despite calls for No10 to delay the next step of lockdown-easing on June 21 over fears the mutant strain could cause hospitals to be crippled once again.
Public Health England analysis shows only 177 out of 5,599 people who caught the mutant strain and presented to A&E had already had both jabs. Almost 3,400 had not yet had their first dose.
Top scientists called the findings ‘incredibly reassuring’. Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘It shows we’ve got the tools to end this.’
Other promising data showing the success of the jab blitz shows the average age of people testing positive is now just 29, the youngest ever recorded and down from 41 at the start of the year. If the trend stays the same, Professor Hunter said Britain ‘should be able to manage the third wave without too much pressure on the NHS and without re-imposition of lockdown’.
But plans to go ahead with ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21 hang in the balance because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant, with cautious scientists calling for ministers to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality.
The fast-spreading B.1.617.2 strain is now behind up to three quarters of all cases in the UK, and has been found in more than 250 of England’s 300-plus authorities.
Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician from University College London and a member of Independent Sage, said the Indian variant was causing concern and the roadmap should be delayed by two months to allow millions more to be fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, one of No10’s advisers also called for caution until more of the population has had both jabs. Professor Andrew Hayward, who is on the Nervtag panel, argued working from home could cut transmission ‘without having any economic impact’.
Boris Johnson yesterday admitted he might delay the end of lockdown, prompting business leaders, hospitality chiefs and senior MPs to urge the PM to stick to his Covid roadmap. They begged him not to ‘steal our summer’ because delaying the full lifting would be ‘devastating’ for the economy.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today insisted it was ‘impossible’ to know how the situation would unfold over the next fortnight. He said ‘there’s nothing in the data that suggests we should move the day’ but refused to rule out local lockdowns and keeping businesses closed in Indian variants hotspots such as Bolton.
Ministers are quietly confident they can press ahead with the route back to normality, given that Britain’s vaccine drive has severed the once impenetrable link between cases and hospitalisations. More than 38million adults have already had one dose, and 24million have had both.
One of the senior officials behind Bolton’s inoculation drive said jabs ‘definitely seem to be working’. Admission rates have crept up over the past month in line with soaring infections, with 49 beds now occupied by coronavirus patients – up from 15 at the start of May. But Dr Helen Wall told BBC Radio 4 they were not as sick as patients they treated in the first or second wave and only five were fully vaccinated.
But No10 is waiting for key data to show just how more transmissible the Indian variant is to give a clearer picture about how much pressure the NHS may come under in the next few months.
If it proves to spread 50 per cent easier than the Kent strain, which triggered the UK’s second wave, then hospitals could once again face huge pressure, experts fear. Vaccines aren’t perfect and haven’t completely broken the link to severe illness, meaning the more people infected, the more people who will need care.
Separate data today revealed that there was around 49,000 people infected in England on any given day in the week ending May 22 – a similar figure to the week before.
The Office for National Statistics, which carries out a huge surveillance testing project that is closely watched by ministers, said rates ‘continue to be low but there are potential signs of an increase’. Other health chiefs say data nationally may be being skewed by extra testing in hotspots.
NHS Test and Trace data yesterday showed the majority of people testing positive for Covid in the UK were in the younger age brackets
PHE data shows how Covid outbreaks are growing across the country. The map on the left shows how around half of England’s 149 upper-tier authorities saw infection rates grow compared to the week before, with areas shaded red witnessing at least a 50 per cent spike in infections. Councils coloured green saw fewer positive tests than the week before. Meanwhile, the map on the right shows exactly the same but for the previous seven-day spell ending May 16
Separate data today revealed that there was around 49,000 people infected in England on any given day in the week ending May 22 – a similar figure to the week before. The Office for National Statistics, which carries out a huge surveillance testing project that is closely watched by ministers, said rates ‘continue to be low but there are potential signs of an increase’. Other health chiefs say data nationally may be being skewed by extra testing in hotspots
More promising data from PHE show that the effects of the variant on vaccinated people are significantly less – out of 5,599 cases only 177 were found to be in people who had had both doses, and only one out of 43 hospital admissions was. Infections, hospitalisations and deaths were all significantly more common in unvaccinated people
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today insisted it was ‘impossible’ to know how the situation would unfold over the next fortnight
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Certainly we have weakened the link significantly between cases and hospitalisations, but we haven’t broken it.
‘We now have fewer restrictions in England than we’ve had since the pandemic started, so if enough people get infected, even a really small proportion who need hospital can still end up being quite large absolute numbers.’
Asked if it would be ‘very demoralising’ to remain as we are now, she said: ‘I think what’s demoralising is having a third wave. If we can just delay international travel, delay stage four of the road map until we have a much higher proportion of people vaccinated with two doses, we’re in a much, much better position.
‘We’re only two months away from that, it’s not long to wait. What I don’t want is for us to have new restrictions.’
Professor Andrew Hayward, from University College London and a member of New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said people who have only had one dose of the vaccine could end up in hospital, even if they were young.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘On top of that, we are seeing a doubling of cases (of the Indian variant) every week, and at a very minimum estimate it’s about 7,000 cases last week, it only takes five or six doublings for that to get up to say a quarter-million cases, and then you could set the pressure on the NHS and avoidable illnesses.’
He said when further restrictions were lifted ‘instead of doubling every week it’s likely to double more frequently than that of course, so I think there is a good argument for caution until such time as we’ve got a much higher proportion of the population double vaccinated’.
Professor Hayward added: ‘It is a trade off, it’s a difficult trade off to make and it’s up to our politicians to make that trade off.
‘There are some baseline measures that can remain in place without drastically affecting the economy.
‘A lot of people can relatively easily work from home without it affecting their productivity and having a huge economic impact, and that would substantially reduce the amount of transmission.’
MPs pile pressure on Boris Johnson to stick to June 21 timetable for reopening the country
Boris Johnson was warned last night not to ‘steal our summer’ after he admitted he might delay the end of lockdown.
With some scientists sounding the alarm over the rise of the Indian variant, business leaders, hospitality chiefs and senior MPs told the Prime Minister to stick to his Covid roadmap.
They warned that delaying the full lifting of restrictions on June 21 would be ‘devastating’ for the economy, just as consumer confidence was flooding back.
And they said traders could go bust if social distancing or other curbs were kept for longer than necessary.
But Mr Johnson yesterday cautioned ‘we may need to wait’ even though he ‘didn’t see anything in the data’ to justify not sticking to June 21.
William Lees-Jones, who owns a brewery and pub chain in the North West, said his message was: ‘Don’t steal our summer, Boris.’
The comments come after SAGE member Professor John Edmunds yesterday said he would advise Boris Johnson not to take the next step as planned because ‘at the moment it looks a little bit risky’.
Meanwhile, fellow adviser ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang ‘in the balance’. He said the now-dominant strain would trigger a ‘small third wave’ but that the next two or three weeks would be ‘critical’ in deciding whether it was safe to move to step four on the roadmap.
Despite fears the Indian variant could jeopardise lockdown-easing plans, separate surveillance data revealed the median age of people testing positive stood at 29 for the week ending May 19.
This was down from 35 at the start of April and 41 at the beginning of the year.
Compounding the apparent efficacy of the vaccine rollout, analysis now shows that two thirds of people admitted to hospital with the coronavirus are under 65, The Times reports.
Professor Hunter told the newspaper the trend showed ‘the value of immunisation in reducing cases in the older more highly immunised age groups’.
‘If case numbers in the older age groups remain low then hospitalisations will remain low and hopefully we should be able to manage the third wave of infection without too much pressure on the NHS and without re-imposition of lockdown.’
But despite the Prime Minister’s desire to announce an end to social distancing this week, this has been pushed back amid the ongoing threat of the Indian Covid variant.
The Prime Minister has said that he has not seen ‘anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map’, but hinted that the government would wait until the June 14 deadline before announcing a relaxation.
Cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng is bullish on June 21 ‘freedom day’ saying ‘nothing in the data’ to change roadmap
Kwasi Kwarteng today insisted June 21 ‘freedom day’ is still on track despite concerns over rising Covid case rates – but stressed there are ‘no guarantees’.
The Business Secretary said there is ‘nothing in the data’ so far that suggests the schedule will need to be pushed back, even though the Indian strain is now dominant.
In a round of interviews, Mr Kwarteng pointed at the vaccine rollout and evidence that jabs still give protection against the new strain. But he also cautioned that ministers will not hesitate to change course if it is not ‘safe’ to unlock.
Mounting questions have been asked about the government’s schedule, with the latest infection figures showing a rise of more than a fifth in a week. However, hospitalisations have not been increasing at the same pace.
Mr Kwarteng told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Nothing I’ve seen would suggest that we should extend or delay the date of reopening. But the caveat obviously is the data can change.
‘If scientific evidence, data points to an increased hospitalisation rate, increased degree of risk then we have flexibility to move that date.
‘But as of today I can assure people there is nothing in the data that suggests to me we should move the date.’
Mr Kwarteng said that a single jab provides a ‘considerable degree of protection’, and stressed the rollout should have progressed further by June 21.
‘I don’t think we will move the date. But I can’t guarantee that… I can’t guarantee that in three and a half weeks’ time we will be able to reopen,’ he said.
Discussing the next step of the lockdown-easing plan, Mr Kwarteng said ‘there’s nothing in the data that suggests to me that we should move the day’ of the next stage of lifting Covid restrictions on June 21.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The caveat obviously is the data can change. So if scientific evidence data points to an increased hospitalisation rate, increased degree of risk, then we have flexibility to move that date.’
But he added: ‘As of today, as of the data I’ve seen, I didn’t think we will move the date. But I can’t guarantee that on May 28, you will appreciate I cannot guarantee that in three-and-a-half weeks’ time.’
Mr Kwarteng told Sky News: ‘We’ll be looking at the data, we’ve said repeatedly that we won’t make a final decision about the 21st of June until the 14th of June, a week before the established date. So I can’t guarantee one thing or the other.’
He did not rule out keeping businesses closed in the areas worst-impacted by the Indian variant of coronavirus.
Asked on Sky News whether there could be a return to some sort of local lockdown, Mr Kwarteng said ministers were considering ‘all options’.
He said: ‘I repeat what I’ve said before, we’re looking at the data. We want to reopen on the 21st of June, and we’re trying to get to that outcome. But if the data says suggests that it would be unsafe to do that, we may well follow that, we would follow that.’
Despite growing fears, Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) group, told BBC Breakfast that cases will go up but the vaccines are proving to help.
He said: ‘We would expect, with these restrictions being lifted, at some point the R number would go above 1, and it looks like that’s probably what’s happening now, given that we’re starting to see cases going up.
‘But the important thing for us is, given we now have the vaccines, we are in a very different place from, say, in October when we were starting to see cases rising in a concerning way, because hopefully the vaccines can help us along the way, and if we sort of kick the can down the road, as it were, a little bit, we can allow the vaccines to help us and hopefully allow us ultimately to lift restrictions.’
He said ‘it seems like the vaccines work pretty well, particularly after a second dose’ and urged everyone to come forward for both doses of the jab.
‘Obviously the worry is that, because it’s a bit more transmissible, then there is the potential for a further wave of infections and potentially hospital admissions will start to rise again,’ he added.
‘So we really need to try and gather as much evidence as we can over the next week or two to really understand what’s going on with this new variant and how much more it’s spreading, and then obviously try to predict what we expect may happen should this June 21 relaxation go ahead.’
Bolton health chiefs say jabs are ‘definitely’ working
One of the senior officials behind Bolton’s Covid vaccine drive today praised the jabs, saying they ‘definitely seem to be working’.
Dr Helen Wall told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that patients in hospital in the area are not as sick as previous patients with Covid.
She said there are ‘significant numbers of 30- and 40-year-olds’ going into hospital in Bolton, adding that there are ‘tens of thousands of young people’ who have only just become eligible for the vaccine ‘that we need to get vaccinated really rapidly now’.
She added: ‘In terms of how ill they’re getting, I think the vaccine definitely seems to be working.
‘We are not seeing, certainly not many people as sick as we would have done pre-vaccine, certainly the picture in hospital is much better to previous times when we’ve been at this position.’
Dr Wall said the oldest patient in hospital is 101, adding: ‘As you get older anyway for any illness, your ability to fight illness, your ability to build immunity from vaccination, does reduce.’
Her comments came after Matt Hancock last night told a Downing Street press conference that vaccines were helping to protect the NHS in Bolton where cases have surged in recent weeks.
He said the link between the number of cases and the number of hospital admissions remains the critical point, pointing out that only five out of 49 patients were people who had been fully vaccinated – the others were not totally covered.
Mr Hancock said: ‘Earlier today I spoke to Fiona Noden, the chief executive of Bolton Hospital, and her message is very clear. The hospital is functioning well and it is open to all those who need it, but people need to be careful and cautious and follow the rules and take personal responsibility to help to slow the spread.
‘She also said, and I quote: ‘I dread to think where we’d be without the vaccine, so please ask people to come forward and get the jab’.
‘So when you get the call get the jab and make sure you come forward for your second dose so you can get the maximum possible protection.’
An update from Public Health England last night 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.’
A weekly update from PHE showed 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.
Discussing the country’s situation in a Downing Street press conference last night, 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.
‘Over the past six months we now have built a huge testing capacity at our disposal and we are using this to surge testing into the eight hotspot areas and other places where the cases are lower but rising.
‘In the hotspot areas we are surging vaccines, too, for those who are eligible, in Bolton for instance we have done 17,147 vaccinations in the last week.’
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 fully vaccinated. Mathematicians said this could mean the jabs are still over 90 per cent effective against the mutated virus.
PHE’s report showed that, although B1617.2 had only made up around 2.5 per cent of all cases since October, since February it appeared to account for 84 per cent.
Its report 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].’
Mobile testing units have been sent to areas with large numbers of cases and an extra 400,000 swab test kits have been sent to the worst-hit places, with the Army dishing them out on the streets in Bolton.
Boss at the NHS Providers union, Saffron Cordery, said the new figures were ‘deeply concerning’ and added: ‘Data on hospital cases seems to be focused amongst those patients who either haven’t been vaccinated yet or had just one vaccine.
‘This hammers home just how important it is get fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We urge everyone to get their jabs when they’re offered them.’
Public Health England’s report shows that cases of the Indian variant were originally mostly in London but then a huge spike in the North West followed, with it now present in every region of the country
The report shows that the Indian variant, VOC-21APR-02 (pink) now makes up the majority of coronavirus cases in England
|Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases||Area name||Cases|
|Bedford||366||Stockport||24||Tonbridge and Malling||9||Breckland||<5||Isle of Wight||<5|
|Blackburn with Darwen||361||Watford||24||Wandsworth||9||Colchester||<5||King’s Lynn and West Norfolk||<5|
|Sefton||175||East Northamptonshire||23||County Durham||8||East Staffordshire||<5||Mid Sussex||<5|
|Nottingham||158||Liverpool||23||Maidstone||8||Epsom and Ewell||<5||North Somerset||<5|
|Wigan||113||Slough||23||Reigate and Banstead||8||Exeter||<5||North West Leicestershire||<5|
|Central Bedfordshire||109||Wolverhampton||23||Ribble Valley||8||Halton||<5||Redditch||<5|
|Hillingdon||102||Dudley||20||Vale of White Horse||8||North Hertfordshire||<5||Stoke-on-Trent||<5|
|Ealing||83||Hackney||19||West Oxfordshire||8||Selby||<5||Surrey Heath||<5|
|Hounslow||80||North Lincolnshire||19||Brighton and Hove||7||South Bucks||<5||Tandridge||<5|
|Croydon||76||Barking and Dagenham||18||Gateshead||7||South Cambridgeshire||<5||Waverley||<5|
|Birmingham||68||Newcastle upon Tyne||18||Merton||7||South Norfolk||<5||Winchester||<5|
|Greenwich||64||Mid Suffolk||17||Richmond upon Thames||7||Tamworth||<5||Basingstoke and Deane||<5|
|North Tyneside||58||Southwark||17||Stafford||7||West Suffolk||<5||Cherwell||<5|
|Luton||52||Hyndburn||16||Blaby||6||Bath and North East Somerset||<5||Cornwall||<5|
|Newham||48||Lewisham||16||Broxbourne||6||Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole||<5||Daventry||<5|
|Rochdale||46||St. Helens||16||Eastleigh||6||Chiltern||<5||Derbyshire Dales||<5|
|Unknown||46||Aylesbury Vale||15||Fylde||6||Crawley||<5||Folkestone and Hythe||<5|
|South Northamptonshire||45||Wyre||15||Oadby and Wigston||6||Epping Forest||<5||Hinckley and Bosworth||<5|
|Preston||43||Hammersmith and Fulham||14||Rushcliffe||6||Gloucester||<5||Kettering||<5|
|Coventry||38||Nuneaton and Bedworth||14||Test Valley||6||Gravesham||<5||Lancaster||<5|
|Tower Hamlets||38||Wiltshire||14||Basildon||5||Knowsley||<5||Malvern Hills||<5|
|Trafford||35||Dartford||13||Bracknell Forest||5||Redcar and Cleveland||<5||Middlesbrough||<5|
|Enfield||33||South Ribble||13||Brentwood||5||Somerset West and Taunton||<5||New Forest||<5|
|Lambeth||33||Waltham Forest||13||Calderdale||5||South Lakeland||<5||Newcastle-under-Lyme||<5|
|Haringey||32||Charnwood||12||Cheshire West and Chester||5||Southend-on-Sea||<5||North East Lincolnshire||<5|
|Salford||32||Three Rivers||12||Derby||5||St Albans||<5||North Kesteven||<5|
|Reading||31||West Lancashire||11||Kingston upon Hull, City of||5||Sunderland||<5||Plymouth||<5|
|Redbridge||31||Doncaster||10||Kingston upon Thames||5||Thanet||<5||Rotherham||<5|
|Canterbury||30||Herefordshire, County of||10||Northumberland||5||West Berkshire||<5||Shropshire||<5|
|Tameside||30||Islington||10||Sheffield||5||West Lindsey||<5||South Derbyshire||<5|
|Bristol, City of||28||Kensington and Chelsea||10||South Oxfordshire||5||Worcester||<5||South Holland||<5|
|Swindon||28||Solihull||10||Telford and Wrekin||5||Dover||<5||Tendring||<5|
|Bexley||27||Southampton||10||Tunbridge Wells||5||East Riding of Yorkshire||<5||Thurrock||<5|
|High Peak||26||Dacorum||9||Windsor and Maidenhead||5||Erewash||<5||Wychavon||<5|