Indian variant throws UK into Covid confusion

Leading scientists urge caution as fears of third wave grow

NHS workers are seen next to a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) mobile testing unit in Tower Hamlets, London, Britain, May 2, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
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The number of coronavirus cases in the UK reached a two-month high on Friday, as numbers of the Indian variant continue to grow rapidly.
This prompted calls from experts for caution and less contradictory government guidance.

The professor whose advice contributed to England's first lockdown in 2020 told The Guardian the downside of being "a bit more cautious" was a lot smaller than the downside of getting it wrong.

If restrictions are lifted too fast, the situation could worsen "very, very quickly", said Sir Tim Gowers, professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

Government figures on Friday showed that another 4,182 new confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported across the UK.

This was the highest daily figure since April 1, when 4,478 cases were recorded.

The cases bring the total number of confirmed infections reported over the past seven days to 20,765 – a 24 per cent increase from the previous week.


Data also showed the Indian variant is now the dominant strain in the UK, and its exponential growth threatens June 21, the date when all legal Covid restrictions in England are set to expire.

The Times reported on Saturday that the government is considering extending guidance on wearing face coverings and working from home beyond June 21.

However, this approach was called confusing by a leading behavioural scientist.

The government is "beginning to act in a rather contradictory way", Prof Stephen Reicher, a psychologist at the University of St Andrews who serves on the Sage group of scientific advisers, told the BBC on Saturday.

"They're saying to us, for instance on travel: 'You can travel internationally but please don't.'

"They say of social contact: 'You can hug, but please don't hug.' They say of restrictions: 'No restrictions but please don't go in and out of the hotspots.'

"That contradiction, that sense of confusion, I think is undermining the response," Mr Reicher said.

He also said the government appeared to have reneged on its commitment to be guided by data not dates.

Mr Gowers agreed, highlighting UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's rhetoric.

“Because [he] has made a big thing about all the steps being irreversible, I think he’s put himself in a position where once he takes a step, he’ll be extremely reluctant to reverse, because that would be a big U-turn, an embarrassing climbdown,” he said.

“So I think if that’s the way you’re going to play things, then you should be very, very cautious about every step you take …  And maybe everything [will] be OK, maybe the number of people who are vaccinated will be just enough … ‘R’ [a way of rating a disease's ability to spread] will, broadly speaking, stay below one even with Indian variants.

“But if it’s not OK, we know, because of mathematics, that things will get bad very, very quickly. Or at least, maybe it won’t look that quick to start with, but it’ll grow exponentially," Mr Gowers said.

“So it’ll pick up speed and become a big problem.”