Boris Johnson is coming under increasing pressure to be ready to slow or reverse England’s emergence from lockdown, amid scientific concern over the exponential growth in cases of the “Indian” variant of the coronavirus.
Days before the biggest relaxation of restrictions yet, questions were raised over whether the prime minister’s tests for easing lockdown were being met.
Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani, of Queen Mary University of London, told The Independent that it was “baffling” that Monday’s reopening of indoor restaurants and pubs was going ahead despite cases of the Indian variant B1.617.2 more than doubling each week in England.
Meanwhile, polling for The Independent showed that large segments of the public remain cautious about the route out of lockdown.
Almost one in five (19 per cent) of those questioned by Savanta ComRes – including almost a quarter (23 per cent) of women – said the final removal of most restrictions should be delayed beyond Mr Johnson’s target date of 21 June.
And, in a survey taken on 7-9 May before the surge in the Indian variant shot into the headlines, about half of voters said they did not believe it was safe to open the borders for holidays this summer.
Some 47 per cent said they thought it would be unsafe for their family to holiday in Europe, against just 26 per cent who said it was safe, with greater concern for trips to the US (54 per cent against 24 per cent) and other long-haul destinations (52-25). Some 52 per cent said it was unsafe for Europeans to enter the UK, while 54 per cent said the same for visitors from the US, and 56 per cent from other long-haul destinations.
Data released by Public Health England showed an additional 793 cases of the B1.617.2 variant over the previous week, bringing the total detected to 1,313. The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, said it was clear that the strain was more transmissible even than the Kent variant, which fuelled the UK’s second wave.
Dr Gurdasani said: “What we are seeing right now is a new variant that we barely understand. We don’t know how much more transmissible it is, we don’t know its impact in terms of escaping vaccines, its impact on severe disease, or the susceptibility of young people to it.
“We certainly shouldn’t be opening up on Monday or ending lockdown on 21 June. The fact that we have exponential growth means that current restrictions aren’t working on this variant. Rather than relaxing on Monday, we should be talking about what more we should do to contain this.”
Dr Gurdasani said the UK had a “short window” to rein in spread by stepping up mask-wearing and ventilation in schools, improving test and trace programmes and imposing mandatory 14-day quarantine on all arrivals from overseas.
While there is no data yet to show greater vaccine resistance or increased threat of serious illness or death, the concern is that if the B1.617.2 variant becomes endemic in the UK, it could mutate again and develop the ability to escape the effect of jabs.
Dr Kit Yates, of the University of Bath, said it was “debatable” whether Mr Johnson had met his roadmap’s requirement that easing of restrictions should go ahead only if “our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern”.
He warned: “If there were to be immune escape, then the modelling that feeds into Sage suggests that we could see numbers of cases which outstrip the cases we saw in the second wave. In my opinion this is something we should be concerned about.”
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, told The Independent that the government must be ready to respond promptly to the developing science.
“We have always said we have to be driven by the data,” said Mr Ashworth. “The lesson throughout this crisis has always been, ‘Act quickly.’
“That’s why in the Commons, two or three weeks ago, we said: ‘Designate this variant a variant of concern now, so we can get on top of it.’ Ministers refused to do it at that stage. We warned them it would get out of control. And the last thing you want is a variant out of control. It is now urgent that Boris Johnson stamps down on this variant as quickly as possible.”
The chair of Westminster’s all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, Layla Moran, said that Mr Johnson must “absolutely” be ready to roll back relaxations of lockdown restrictions if his scientific advisers recommend it, even if it meant calling off Monday’s easement at the last minute or reversing the steps towards normality that are planned for the coming week.
“Variants of concern are the last hurdle in the race that could undermine everything – including the vaccination programme,” said the Liberal Democrat MP.
“The onus really needs to be on the government to give confidence that the current rate of opening up is the right thing to do. We need to know that they’re listening to Sage.”
The government’s decision to ignore Sage advice for a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown last September was “a big mistake”, said Ms Moran.
“If Sage are saying slow down, then I would back Sage in that, and if the prime minister finds himself wondering if he’s going to have support for following the science, he should know he will find no resistance from the all-party group,” she said. “All we want is for him to be following the best advice.”
Labour MP Rosie Cooper, a member of the House of Commons Health Committee whose West Lancashire constituency lies between Bolton and Formby – two hotspots of the B1.617.2 variant – said: “Nobody wants lockdown, be it national or local, to continue for a day longer than it has to.
“But our primary concern has to be the lives of our citizens. They don’t have to race ahead with easing restrictions, they need to be proportionate. If [the reproduction rate] R gets above one, the prime minister has to consider slowing things down.”
Mark Logan, the Conservative MP for Bolton North East, said that, despite Monday’s relaxations, he would be urging constituents “to try as much as they can not to mix, to maintain social distancing and wearing of face masks over the days and weeks ahead”.
More regional lockdowns were the last thing needed in a town that has suffered more than most areas of England from local restrictions over the past year, he said. He said that decisions must be driven by the data obtained by close monitoring of the variant.
But Bolton West MP Chris Green told The Independent: “People in Bolton are far more worried about lockdown than about Covid.
“There is health to consider, but there is also business and education and civil liberties, and there is the health time-bomb we know is there in terms of non-Covid conditions. Unless there is compelling evidence that this variant is wildly different from the others, Bolton should return to normal with the rest of the country and we should have relaxation of all restrictions on 21 June.”
• Savanta ComRes questioned 2,152 British adults on 7-9 May.