Putting India on the travel red list was a necessary step due to an “upward trend” in UK cases involving a potentially worrying variant, a public health expert has said.
Sharon Peacock, the head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it was currently unclear whether the variant first identified in India was behind its current wave, but there was enough concern to warrant slowing the number of cases coming into the UK.
On Monday, Boris Johnson was forced to cancel a trip to India while Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that 103 cases of the variant had been identified in the UK so far.
The variant – also known as B.1.617 – was first noted internationally in October and first identified in the UK on February 22.
It has 13 mutations including two in the virus’ spike protein known as E494Q and L452R.
However, Public Health England (PHE) experts are currently unsure whether any of the mutations mean the variant can be transmitted more easily, is more deadly or can evade the effectiveness of vaccines or natural immunity.
Prof Peacock said more work was needed to determine whether the variant should move from being one under investigation, as at present, to a variant of concern.
But she said the decision to put India on the red list – which means people returning from India must quarantine in a Government-approved hotel for 10 days – was a good move.
“This is an important step in controlling further introduction of this variant into the UK,” she said.
“The number of B.1.617 genomes detected in the UK has risen in the last three weeks.
“Even though this is at or less than 1% of the genomes sequenced in the UK overall, the upward trend in cases warrants action whilst ongoing uncertainties over the level of threat posed by this variant are evaluated.
“Public Health England indicated on Sunday that a few cases are not linked to travel – but the vast majority of cases have been in people who have travelled.
“Contact tracing, testing and genomic surveillance of people with Covid-19 will provide essential information on the extent of transmission in the UK that is no longer related to travel (community transmission), which will in turn inform public health actions.”
She said India is currently witnessing a surge in Covid-19 cases.
“The question is whether this is associated with the variant, with human behaviour (for example, the presence of large gatherings, and/or lack of preventive measures including hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing) or whether both are contributing,” she said.
“It is not clear at the present time whether B.1.617 is the main driver for the current wave.”
The quarantine requirements for people returning to the UK from India come into force at 4am on Friday.
Anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen will be banned from entering the country if they have been in India in the previous 10 days.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the Government, suggested on BBC Breakfast that the decision to put India on the red list may have come a bit late.
“These decisions are almost inevitably taken a bit too late, in truth, but what’s absolutely clear is that this variant is more transmissible in India,” he said.
“You can see that it’s becoming the dominant variant, and the other concern about it is that it has a second change in the spike protein which may mean that it’s able to be a bit more effective at escaping an immune response, either a natural one or vaccine-induced one, so there’s good reasons for wanting to keep it out of the country if at all possible.
“What we need to do is get the population vaccinated and also get booster vaccines prepared that will be able to deal with these new variants – so buying time … against these new variants is really important.”
Asked if he felt confident that the next release of restrictions would go ahead in England on May 17, he said: “So far, so good. The numbers of case are low, but nevertheless, there are still new cases arising, and it’s why data not dates are what matter.
“It takes time, we’ve only been under the latest relaxations for a few days and so we just need to see over the next few weeks how the numbers stack up, but so far so good and with the good weather, it’s so nice to be optimistic that as long as people are careful, we should be alright for the next phase.”
Meanwhile, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson defended the delay in putting India on the travel red list.
“It’s standard practise to give people a sort of short window in order to be able to manage their affairs,” he told Sky News.
“It’s the right approach to do, it’s the approach we’ve taken with other countries around the world when they’ve gone onto the red list.
“The Government continuously reviews the data, continues to review the information we’re getting from the scientific community in terms of what countries should be put onto the red list, and sadly India has been one of those countries that has had to be added.”