People leaving after having COVID vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton
There are now almost 3,000 cases of the Indian variant in the UK, the health secretary has told MPs. Matt Hancock said 2,967 cases of the COVID-19 variant have now been recorded, having stood at more than 2,300 on Monday – a 28% increase. As a result, surge testing and vaccinations will be deployed in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, and North Tyneside.
Ministers are also supporting the Scottish government, which is taking similar steps in Glasgow and Moray, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon delayed the easing of lockdown rules earlier this week. “What this means in practice is we are putting in place more testing and more testing sites,” Mr Hancock said.
“On vaccinations, we are making more vaccinations available to everyone who is eligible.” The health secretary told MPs that in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, where the most cases of the variant have been recorded, 26,094 jabs and 75,000 extra tests have been administered in the last week.
Mr Hancock added that “we are not yet opening up vaccinations to those who are 35 and younger”, as latest figures showed that more than 70% of UK adults have now had their first dose.
The spread of the Indian variant has raised fears that England’s roadmap out of COVID restrictions could be delayed, but a postponement of step four is far from certain at this stage.
Speaking at Downing Street news conference, the health secretary said the early evidence suggests the variant is more transmissible.
Pointing to comments from Boris Johnson at PMQs, that there is “increasing confidence” that the current vaccines will be effective against all variants, Mr Hancock said: “That means our strategy is the right one – to carefully replace the restrictions on freedom with the protection from the vaccine.
“What it means is that it is even more important that people get vaccinated.” The health secretary added: “This is on all of us again. We are masters of our fate.” Mr Hancock also said that the majority of cases of the variant were in younger and unvaccinated people.
The PM said on Tuesday there was “nothing conclusive” at this stage to say step four of the roadmap – lifting all legal limits on social contact on 21 June – could be pushed back.
Mr Johnson said “we will know a lot more in a few days’ time” and promised to “keep people informed” and “continually updated”.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, one of England’s deputy chief medical officers, told the Downing Street briefing that scientists will know more next week about the transmissibility of the variant.
“The best estimate that I can give you is that the data will begin to firm up some time next week and I think next week will be the first time when we have a ranging shot at what the transmissibility increase is,” he said.
“And that will then feed into models that will help us understand how this looks in terms of the future prospects in terms of resurgent disease, and from there, ministers will be able to make further decisions.”
Professor Van-Tam said transmission of the variant is “not inevitable” and “cautious behaviour” can slow it down. The health secretary also used the briefing to announce a world-first clinical trial on COVID booster vaccines. The Cov-Boost study will trial seven vaccines and will be the first to provide data on the impact of a third dose.