Locking easing may be REVERSED if Indian variant spirals out of control, leading expert warns

LOCKDOWN easing could be reversed if the Indian variant spirals out of control, a leading expert has warned.

Today’s relaxation of restrictions in England went ahead as planned despite the rapid growth in cases of the strain. 

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But Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said the key question is whether a rise of Covid cases moving forward will lead to more people in hospital. 

“The new variant that has come, the B.167, is becoming dominant in parts of the UK,” Sir Jeremy told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Yet vaccination across the country has been extraordinarily successful.

“I think we will see an increase of cases and infections over the coming weeks as some of the restrictions are lifted.

“But I think the key question is whether we have decoupled increased transmission and number of people who do get infected from the number of people that get ill and need to go into hospital or with long Covid.

“If we’ve decoupled them, then I think the country can cope with a marginal degree of an increase in transmission.

“So that is the key question and to be honest, we don’t know that today and that is why I think a very careful lifting is reasonable, but we may have to reverse that if there is escape from the vaccine.”

Although millions of Brits have had at least one dose of a vaccine, around a third of adults are still waiting for one dose.

And even among those who are vaccinated, there is potential for them to get severely sick as the jab is not 100 per cent effective.

Vaccines may also be weaker against the Indian strain – however, there is confidence at this stage they will still work to a high effectiveness. 

Amid the critical hunt for more information on the Indian variant, Sir Jeremy added: “I just think we’re at this point where we’ve lifted restrictions, and yet we don’t have that full amount of information.

"I think it is reasonable to lift them today, but I do believe all of us need to be really, really careful.”

A cautious Sir Jeremy said that he would not meet indoors “at the moment”, even though Government guidance now allows six people to do so.

He said: “I think it is reasonable to just be sensible about knowing where transmission is occurring, mostly indoors, mostly in larger gatherings indoors with lots of different people, different families, different communities, and I would just restrict that at the moment personally.”

But he added: “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to lift the restrictions – we do need to lift the restrictions at some point, we’ve been in restrictions now for a very long time.”

The Government has escalated measures to try and control the Indian strain, including a mass testing blitz with help from the army.

However even the PM has admitted that the June 21 step of unlocking is in jeopardy to the dismay of millions in England waiting for more freedoms.

Reason for optimism 

Whether it was right to lift restrictions today – or in the future – has split experts.

A positive Sage scientist said today he believes there is less than a 50 per cent chance that the June 21 plan for lifting all legal limits on social contact will be delayed.

Prof Graham Medley, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told LBC he thought “there’s really one other wave” of infection to come in the UK.

He said this will likely happen “at some point during the summer, maybe late into September or October, depending on how much people mix”.

But hopefully “vaccines will hold back the virus and prevent people going to hospital”.

He added: “There has always been a risk that if we have another wave of infection between now and the end of the vaccination programme that we will end up with large numbers of people in hospital.

“This new variant does seem to be more transmissible, and so it’s just increased that risk a bit.”

What is the Indian variant?

There are in fact three variants that are from India that emerged in the UK around mid-April.

These are B.1.617, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3. It is the second one (B.1.617.2) that is causing concern.

PHE says there are 1,255 cases in England, 35 in Scotland, 11 in Wales and 12 in Northern Ireland.

The true numbers are likely higher because there is a lag period with detecting cases.

In England, infections are spread across the country, but there are hotspots which are now receiving surge testing.

Data to April 24 reveals that in four areas of England, the Indian variant is the most dominant.

Case numbers are still relatively small. But scientists say it is the speed at which the numbers are growing that is of concern.

Sage – the scientists that advise Government – believe the Indian variant could be up to 50 per cent more easily spread than the strain from Kent.

The Kent variant put England back into a third national lockdown because it spread so much faster than the original strain from Wuhan, China.

It could infect those who are unvaccinated – currently a third of the population – or vulnerable people who have not been able to get the jab or for whom the jab does not work for.

But the Health Secretary says he has a "high degree of confidence" that the jab does work against the new variant.



Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng also insisted the June 21 was likely to be met.

He told Sky News that “people should have common sense, they should use judgment and I think if we act in a reasonable way, there is no reason to suppose that we can’t reopen the economy entirely on June 21”.

Prof Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), suggested he was hopeful June 21 could go ahead.

But he said unexpected things happened in pandemics – and things “don’t always turn out the way you expect”.

He said: “I really hope that these current concerns around this variant evaporate, that everything goes to plan.

“But I think we just have to accept the possibility that we’re in for another big wave and that we will have to change what we’re doing.

“That’s not good news for people in businesses I know, but it’s the reality… We’re faced with real uncertainty here.”

Exercise caution

One leading scientist suggested if people were cautious now, things would look better in the summer.

Prof Peter Openshaw, who is a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), told BBC Breakfast: “Some of us are quite happy not to be hugging and kissing many times on the cheek.

“This is a high-risk procedure, I would say in medical terms and I would certainly not be embracing people closely.

“I think we must be extremely cautious. I think we’re all in agreement that this is a moment when we need to be very cautious if we’re going to preserve our freedoms going forward into the summer.

“The more cautious we are now, the more likely it is that we’re going to be able to open up as we hope to over the summer.”

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