Delay in shutting Britain’s borders with India was ‘reckless, misguided and dangerous’, say critics as Boris announces Indian Covid variant could put lockdown easing at risk
- Country was only added to UK’s travel ‘red list’ late last month, despite concerns
- There are growing fears over the fast-growing variant, now present in Britain
- Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner led the criticism of the PM this evening
Boris Johnson was tonight accused of being ‘reckless, misguided and dangerous’ for not shutting Britain’s borders with India earlier after four people died from the new Indian covid strain.
The country was only added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ late last month, despite earlier concerns over transmission of the fast-growing variant, which has since made its way onto British shores.
Some have suggested that Prime Minister was keen to keep relations strong with India, having planned a visit – which subsequently had to be cancelled – as part of efforts to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal.
As a result, while flights were banned from neighbouring Pakistan early last month, borders between the two countries remained open for two more weeks, with as many as 8,000 people from India jetting into Britain on daily flights across that fortnight.
Data then shows 122 passengers entering the country from New Delhi and Mumbai between late March and April 26 were carrying the variant.
The opposition is now piling pressure on Mr Johnson after it was revealed this morning that the Indian strain has killed four people in Britain between May 5 and 12,
Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner tweeted tonight: ‘Boris Johnson’s decision to yet again refuse to learn from his mistakes and leave the borders open to arrivals from India without hotel quarantine is looking more and more reckless, misguided and dangerous by the hour.’
Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, added: ‘Boris Johnson must take responsibility for the failure to prevent the Indian variant taking root in the UK.
‘Once again the Government acted too late, and the country is sadly paying the price.’
However, the PM used his Downing Street press conference this evening to defend not shutting down travel sooner, saying that between March and April the South Africa variant was of greater concern than the India variant.’
Boris Johnson was tonight blasted as ‘reckless, misguided and dangerous’ for not shutting Britain’s borders with India earlier
Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner piled pressure on Mr Johnson after it was revealed this morning that the Indian strain has killed four people in Britain between May 5 and 12
SAGE says it’s a ‘realistic possibility’ Indian variant could lead to 1,000 Covid deaths by summer
There is a ‘realistic possibility’ the Indian Covid variant is far more transmissible than the Kent strain and could lead to up to a thousand deaths a day by summer, the Government’s scientists warned tonight.
The SPI-M subgroup said it was confident the mutant B.1.617.2 strain was more infectious than the currently dominant variant, and that it could spread up to 50 per cent more easily.
It warned that pressing on with easing all lockdown restrictions on June 21, as is currently the plan for England, could lead to more than 10,000 more people being hospitalised with the disease daily by Autumn.
The bleak forecasts were presented to No10 this week after cases of the strain more than doubled in seven days and four people were found to have died from the variant.
Scientists advising SAGE this month estimated what a more transmissible strain could do to the country after lockdown is lifted in June and claimed it could trigger up to 20,000 hospital admissions per day in a worst-case scenario. January’s peak, which nearly crippled the NHS, was around 3,800 a day in England.
A Warwick University modelling team cautioned that if it was 40 per cent more transmissible the next surge could be worse than the second wave, with up to 6,000 daily admissions, and a 50 per cent increase could lead to 10,000 per day. Less grisly numbers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested a 50 per cent rise could lead to 4,000 per day.
But there are still glimmers of hope, with experts saying it remains unclear whether the current variant spreads significantly quicker or whether it is a coincidence it sprung up in places that already had high transmission or simply emerged in clusters linked to people flying into the country from abroad.
Vaccines are still likely to work against the strain, research suggests, and there are no signs it is more deadly. But faster transmission means more people getting infected and more opportunities for ‘vaccine failure’ – when people get sick even after having a jab, which may happen to between five and 15 per cent of people.
The variant still only makes up a minority of cases nationwide – around 10 per cent – but it is growing quickly and particularly in hotspots such as Bolton, Blackburn, Bedford and Sefton in Merseyside, where it is confirmed to account for more than half of all positive tests.
‘Don’t forget everyone coming from India, or indeed anywhere else, had to face very tough quarantine rules,’ he added.
‘We are concerned about this variant and we do think, I think, that it certainly may cause disruption to our attempts to continue down the road map, but they don’t at the moment, change the assessment about about (the next) step.’
Mr Johnson urged people to ‘think twice’ ahead of travelling to areas with higher incidences of the Indian variant and staying with family and friends within those areas and ‘exercise their discretion and judgment in a way I’m sure that they have been throughout this pandemic’.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chairman for JCVI, said: ‘Due to the rapid rise in cases of the B1.617.2 variant of concern and notable transmission in parts of the country, the JCVI advises that every effort is made to promote vaccine uptake in those who remain unvaccinated in priority cohorts 1 to 9 – these people remain at highest risk of severe outcomes from Covid-19.
‘Where vaccine supply allows, particularly in areas where B1.617.2 is a major threat, the second dose of vaccine should be brought forward from 12 to eight weeks. This is only possible because everyone in the Phase 1 priority groups has already been offered a first dose.
‘Alongside these measures, the vaccine programme should continue to be rolled out as quickly as possible. The capacity of vaccination centres should be maximised to enable rapid rollout.’
It came as the Prime Minister today downplayed the prospects of further countries being opened up to quarantine-free travel as he faced criticism over the import of the Indian variant of coronavirus.
Mr Johnson defended existing restrictions on foreign travel, but said he did not expect new nations to be added to the green list exempting the need to isolate ‘very rapidly’.
The spread of the Indian variant, which Government scientists believe could be up to 50% more transmissible than the Kent strain, has been witnessed in areas including Blackburn and Bolton.
The Prime Minister warned the nation that the strain could cause ‘serious disruption’ to plans to ease restrictions, and could make it ‘more difficult’ to end them as planned on June 21.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘People across the country will be deeply concerned and tonight’s news brings into sharp focus Boris Johnson’s reckless failure to protect our borders in this crisis.
‘Only a few weeks ago we urged Matt Hancock to designate this a variant of concern and respond with speed and resolve.’
Mr Johnson warned that border restrictions are likely to remain for the ‘foreseeable future’ and that new nations are unlikely to be added to the quarantine-free green lists quickly.
‘There’s a very limited list as you know and we will certainly be making sure that people travelling abroad will be subject to all the tests and constraints to prevent the virus being reimported,’ he said.
‘That’s why it’s such a tiny list of countries and I don’t expect we will be adding to it very rapidly.
‘Indeed we will be maintaining a very, very tough border regime for the foreseeable future, I imagine.’
It came as Nicola Sturgeon slowed Scotland’s lockdown, with Glasgow and Moray remaining in Level 3 of Scotland’s five-tier system of coronavirus restrictions on Monday as the rest of the mainland drops to Level 2.
Scientists believe the Indian variant is even more infectious than the highly virulent Kent strain currently dominant in the UK – but it is not yet clear by how much. There are no signs it is more deadly or resistant to vaccines.
Cases of the B.1.617.2 strain have more than doubled in the past week across the UK, with 1,313 cases detected by May 12, up from the 520 the previous week.
Surge testing has already begun in 15 towns including Bolton and Formby and ministers last night approved plans aimed at slowing the spread of the imported strain of Covid-19.
Mr Johnson said second doses of coronavirus vaccines will be accelerated for the over-50s and the clinically vulnerable across the country to be given eight weeks after the first dose instead of the current 12 weeks.
The PM’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings is among those calling for caution, sharing a post on social media which said ‘the cost of another big wave is much higher than the cost of delaying the next stage of the roadmap’.
A Warwick University modelling team cautioned that if the variant was 40 per cent more transmissible than the UK dominant Kent strain the next surge could be worse than the second wave, with up to 6,000 daily hospital admissions.
A 50 per cent increase could lead to 10,000 admissions per day. However, less grisly numbers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested a 50 per cent rise could lead to 4,000 per day.
It came as ministers revealed teenagers could be offered jabs as authorities battle to bring the outbreaks under control, with one pharmacy in Sefton offering walk-in jabs for anyone over 20 today. Ten million vulnerable Britons are also being fast-tracked for their second Covid dose over fears the new strain could spark a deadly third wave.
And the Independent Sage group today said: ‘In the light of the new variant, we consider that any increase of mixing in indoor spaces (whether domestic or commercial) to be highly inadvisable, particularly in areas with already proven high levels of B.1.617.2.
‘Accordingly, local directors of public health should have the discretion to determine when the relaxation of measures can safely occur.
‘Additionally, indoor commercial spaces should only be allowed to reopen if they can maintain adequate social distancing and have proper ventilation, with a priority program of inspection developed in co-operation with the Health and Safety Executive.’
A Warwick University model of a more infectious variant after lockdown is completely lifted on June 21 suggests that any more than a 30 per cent increase in transmissibility compared to the Kent variant could lead to an August peak of daily hospital admissions that is higher than either the first or second wave. In a worst-case scenario with a variant 50 per cent more transmissible, hospital admissions could surge to 10,000 per day or even double that (Thick lines indicate the central estimate while the thin lines are possible upper limits known as confidence intervals)
Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day
The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July – up to around 45,000 – compared to the current 845
The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible – which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January
Earlier, top infectious disease expert Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, warned the June end of lockdown will be ‘in doubt’ if the variant causes a surge in serious illness, threatening to send the Government’s unlocking plans into chaos.
Ministers are so far resisting calls to slow the roadmap, insisting the current vaccines roll-out is able to cope. PHE Covid variant expert Professor Nick Loman, from Birmingham University, said the Indian variant’s effect on vaccines is ‘not particularly concerning’.
Meanwhile, SAGE today suggested the R rate for England had risen slightly to somewhere between 0.8 and 1.1, from a possible high of 1.0 last week. If the number is above one it will mean the outbreak is growing. The R rate – the number of people infected by each Covid case – is now almost redundant, however, because it is guaranteed to rise above one as lockdown is lifted and is particularly unreliable when case numbers are low.
Another 2,183 daily Covid cases were announced today across the UK, down 12 per cent on last week, and another 17 deaths were recorded, which were up slightly on the 15 last Friday.
Professor Loman said the mutations carried by the Indian strain do not seem to allow it to dodge vaccine-gained immunity.
‘The mutations we see in the genome are not predicted to have a big impact on the shape of the protein and change how antibodies produced by the natural infection or the vaccine will work,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
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