Indian variant 'unlikely to stop UK coming out of lockdown' as expert says 'no need to panic'

THE Indian variant is “unlikely to stop the UK coming out of lockdown” despite panic about growing cases, an expert has said.

Prof Tim Spector, a leading epidemiologist, said there was “no need to panic” about the highly transmissible strain.

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He said outbreaks of the Indian variant, B.1.617.2, remain localised and may not translate into a nationwide problem.

The Indian variant has become dominant in 23 areas of England, meaning it has overtaken the Kent strain.

And infections have risen to almost 3,000 from 2,323 two days ago and 520 on May 5.

But health leaders are throwing all their efforts into containing the outbreaks, using surge testing in 12 areas to find more cases.

Door-to-door testing and encouragement of vaccination in affected areas has been ramped up.

Measures like this have worked previously to dampen down the South African variant in the North West and London.

And Prof Spector noted that South African and Brazilian variants have rarely spread beyond small clusters in the past.

Prof Spector said: “While the outbreaks remain localised and UK numbers are steady and most cases appear mild, it’s highly unlikely to cause the NHS to be overrun or stop us coming out of lockdown. 

“So no need to panic, but do stay vigilant.”

Low numbers

Data from the study Prof Spector leads – the ZOE Covid Symptom study app – shows that Covid cases have generally remained stable in the past week.

An estimated 2,750 are catching symptomatic Covid each day in the UK, based on swab tests of millions of people.

Prof Spector, of King’s College London, said the number “remains fairly low and virtually unchanged from last week”, when it was 2,782.

“This shows that the Indian variant hasn’t altered the numbers significantly,” he said. 

It comes as Government data shows coronavirus cases across the UK are “absolutely flat”.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, presented graphs at last night’s Downing Street press briefing saying the UK is in a “very low place indeed” when it comes to infection rates.

A separate graph detailing hospital rates revealed a similar pattern.

Meanwhile, NHS Test and Trace data suggests there has been a continued decline in cases in May.

A report today said 14,313 people tested positive in the week to May 5 – down nine per cent from the week before.

The Indian variant has led to calls for a delay in the June 21 lockdown stage – when social distancing is to be entirely scrapped. 

But the Prime Minister has said there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a deviation from the road map, considering vaccines appear to work against it.

Later, his spokesperson said ministers would want to see more information before making decisions on the next steps.

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the No10 briefing a final decision on the June 21 unlocking would be taken as late as possible – a week before, on June 14.

“Until then, it is just too early to say,” said the Cabinet minister.

India vs Kent strain 

Prof Spector said that “there’s no clear evidence yet that the new Indian variant is significantly worse than the old Kent one”.

Scientists on the Government advisory panel Sage said last week the variant could be up to 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain.

But Prof Van-Tam said it could be only a few per cent more easily spread. 

Speaking to the Downing Street briefing last night, Prof Van-Tam said: “I think scientists are sure that this virus is more transmissible than the strain that it is beginning to replace, which is the old Kent B.117 strain.

“The million dollar question is how much more transmissible – we don’t have that yet.

“We have a credible range that goes from a few percent more transmissible through to 50 per cent more transmissible – I think most people feel it is going to be somewhere in the middle… but it is just too early.”

He said the evidence will firm up by next week at just how much more transmissible the Indian variant is.

Then, “ministers will be able to make decisions” on the next phase of lockdown easing.

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