Lockdown lifting on June 21 ‘in doubt’ as Indian variant ‘out-competes dominant strain'

LOCKDOWN lifting on June 21 – when all social restrictions are set to be scrapped – is in doubt due to the Indian variant, an expert has warned.

The coronavirus strain has spread rapidly and “reached all corners of the UK” within a matter of weeks.

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Although cases appear to currently only be in younger people, if it starts to spill into the old and vulnerable, ministers will have to decide whether its safe to allow freedoms.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think the big question is how many of people who are getting the Indian variant will end up requiring hospitalisation.

“And at the moment the hospitalisation rate doesn’t seem to be increasing yet, although if this becomes much more common we’ll almost certainly see some increase, so I think it’s certainly a concern.

“I think the step four is in doubt in June now, but we really need to see what impact it has on severe disease before we can really be certain.”

Asked why June 21 is in doubt, he said: “Well, if the Indian variant of the epidemic continues to increase at the same rate as it has over recent weeks, we’re going to have a huge number of cases by June.”

The Indian variant “clearly has been out-competing” the Kent variant in a number of areas around the UK, Prof Hunter said. 

He and other experts believe it will only be a matter of weeks before it is the most dominant circulating in the UK.

Only Yorkshire and Humber in the North East “seem to have very few cases so far”.

Prof Hunter said: “The issue though is that because it seems to be spreading in unvaccinated younger people… maybe we’ll be able to weather it and we’ll still be able to have the step four in June.

“But if that increases cases in elderly and starts to increase hospitalisations, and puts pressure on the NHS again then I think step four would be in doubt.”

A third of British adults are still waiting to receive at least one vaccine dose, and are therefore susceptible to infection.

And with pubs and restaurants opening indoors from Monday, friends will be meeting much more, giving the virus a chance to spread.

Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London, told Sky News she would personally "delay lockdown all together".

She said: "If we are wrong, and it does get out of control… then we are in a situation where we have to go back to even harsher restriction than we are in now, for longer so we bring cases down again.

"That seems a much worse scenario than waiting a few weeks where we are now, to be sure we can open up in the longer term and more safely."

She said halting unlocking while doing more research will "absolutely reduce the risk of having to lockdown again in the future and potentially reverse the roadmap once we proceed to the next step".

Even before the emergence of the Indian variant, it was expected that lifting of Covid restrictions would cause a wave of cases in youngsters.

It is not clear yet whether vaccines will be able to dampen the impact of a new variant.

Asked about the Indian variant’s resistance to vaccines, Prof Hunter said: “It seems to be a little bit more resistant from the early indications.

“Not as resistant as the South African variant, but a little bit more resistant than the Kent variant."

He added that "even people who get the infection seem to be getting a much milder infection if they’ve had vaccine", regardless of the strain that caused it.

Doctors in India had reported people had caught B.1.617.2 after their vaccine, but are less severely sick.

There is currently no evidence that the variant first identified in India “escapes the vaccines”, according to vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi.

“At the moment we have no evidence that it escapes the vaccines or is more severe in its impact on people,” he told Sky News.

He confirmed that ministers were looking at vaccinating people earlier in the areas where the Indian variant is spreading most, such as Bolton.

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The vaccines minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme more vaccine doses have been sent to Bolton already.

But under the pressure of delaying unlocking, Mr Zahawi said that Monday’s easing of restrictions in England will still go ahead despite concerns.

The PM said he still expected to tear up lockdown restrictions on  Monday and on June 21 but will not rule out local lockdowns.

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