Five Indian variant questions Britons want answered

B1617.2 strain threatens to derail UK's Covid recovery

Members of the public queue to receive a Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination centre at the Essa academy in Bolton, northwest England on May 14, 2021. England remains on track for the latest easing of its coronavirus lockdown next week but is taking no chances after a doubling of cases of an Indian variant, the government said today. / AFP / Oli SCARFF
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A short while ago, Britain was travelling down the road to post-pandemic normality with a spring in its step.

Then news emerged of a new variant that was spreading through India like fire.

Only a few weeks later, India’s Covid case tally exceeds 25 million and there are ominous signs that the double mutant is also taking hold in the UK.

While cases remain low, it has cast a pall over Britons fearful of another lockdown. It is also leading to many questions. Here are five of the most pressing:

1. How prevalent is the Indian variant in the UK?

The latest data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute shows the Indian variant is now the dominant strain in at least 23 local authority districts, and by May 8 had been detected in 127.

This is an exponential increase from mid-March, when there were no known cases.

To date, 2,323 cases of the variant have been found, a fourfold increase on the 520 of 10 days ago.

2. Why does the Indian variant pose a threat to the easing of restrictions in England?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that he had seen nothing in the data to suggest B1617.2’s growing presence in the UK will jeopardise its lifting of all coronavirus restrictions on the planned date of June 21.

This is not overly reassuring, though, given Mr Johnson has guided the UK to the worst death toll in Europe and has a record of deadly delays and cheerful predictions with the accuracy of a long-range weather forecast.

The new strain, B1617.2, was designated a “variant of concern” because it is thought to be as much as “50 per cent more transmissible” than the Kent strain, according to the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or Sage.

Vicky Head, director of public health in Bedford, south-east England, where 80 cases of the Indian variant have so far been confirmed, said she was “really worried” about the spread.

“If someone goes to school and tests positive, we are then seeing their whole family test positive,” Ms Head told the BBC.

3. What has the UK done to battle the Indian variant?

India was placed on the travel red list on April 23 but the new variant had entered the UK by this stage – another example of the government’s tendency to leave its borders exposed.

Vaccinations have been accelerated, especially in the northern English towns of Blackburn and Bolton, where high levels of the variant were detected.

Mr Johnson said last week that second doses, which boost protection against Covid-19, will be brought forward from the planned 12-week interval to eight weeks.

But it remains to be seen whether such a move will help to curb rising infections.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has voiced his frustration over vaccine hesitancy among people admitted to hospital with the variant in Bolton, near Manchester.

But Dr Zubaida Haque, former deputy director of the Runnymede Trust and a member of Sage, said Mr Hancock’s conclusion seemed “to be based on hospitalisations in the town of 18 people, of which a third have been vaccinated”.

Dr Haque said that because it “takes a couple of months” to distribute the vaccine and there are still “millions and millions of people who have not had either the second dose or any dose at all”, the government must do more than increase the programme to battle the viral spread.

4. Does the Indian variant mean social-distancing measures will be extended?

The government had planned to scrap social-distancing measures entirely by June 21 but said on Monday that this could be delayed.

This means people may still need to wear face coverings on public transport and in other shared spaces, and that limits on gatherings might not be lifted as planned.

5. Could local lockdowns be reintroduced to combat the Indian variant?

Mr Hancock told Parliament on Monday that, although controversial, local restrictions are “not where we want to go”. But he also said the government would not “rule them out”.

Cabinet minister George Eustice said the tier system could be revived if “we do have a deterioration in some areas”.

The logic of doing so is unclear, given the tier system failed to ward off the Kent variant when it emerged in 2020.

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