Saturday, November 27News That Matters

Indian variant can ‘spread like wildfire’ if people not jabbed – but ‘confidence’ vaccines work

There is a “high degree of confidence” that vaccines protect against the Indian variant of COVID-19 – but it can “spread like wildfire” among those who haven’t had a jab, Matt Hancock has told Sky News.

The health secretary urged those who are eligible for vaccination – but have not yet booked an appointment – to come forward to get their vaccine as he warned against the possible impact of the Indian COVID variant.

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Mr Hancock said it can “spread even faster” than the Kent variant, which drove the UK’s deadly second wave of infections this winter, with a total of just over 1,300 cases found in the country so far.

He said it was “becoming the dominant strain in some parts of the country” such as Bolton and Blackburn.

In Bolton, where a number of people have ended up in hospitals with the Indian variant, the “vast majority” had been eligible for a COVID jab but had not yet had one, Mr Hancock said.

He likened the current situation facing the country to “a race between the vaccination programme and the virus”, with the Indian variant having “given the virus some extra legs in that race”.

There have been concerns that the spread of the Indian variant in the UK could derail the government’s roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions.

But Mr Hancock said tomorrow’s planned easing to stage three of the roadmap – allowing indoor mixing between households – would still go ahead.

And a decision would be announced on 14 June as to whether the country would proceed to stage four a week later, when ministers aim to remove all legal limits on social contact.

“We need to be cautious, we need to be careful, we need to be vigilant and we’ve said – at each step – we will look at the four tests that we have,” Mr Hancock told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show.

“We assessed those last week for the move we’re making as a country tomorrow and our assessment was all four are met. The fourth of all those four tests is if a new variant knocks us off course.

“We’ll, of course, be assessing that over the weeks to come and we’ll make a final decision for the step four, which is the biggest step on the roadmap.

“We’ll make that final decision on 14 June. We’ve always said we want this to be cautious, we really want it to be irreversible. New variants are one of the biggest risks to this opening.

“Because of the speed of transmission of this one, it can really spread like wildfire amongst the unvaccinated groups – hence we need to get as many people vaccinated as possible, particularly among those who are most vulnerable to ending up in hospital.”

Surge testing under way in Bolton
Image: Surge testing is under way in Bolton, where the India variant is ‘becoming the dominant strain’

Mr Hancock highlighted early data from an Oxford University study as he said there was “a high degree of confidence” that existing COVID vaccines work against the Indian variant.

“The main message I’ve got for everybody this morning is: get vaccinated,” he said. “If you’re in one of the eligible groups, come forward and get a jab.”

But the health secretary warned against allowing an “explosion in cases”, adding: “Because this variant can spread even faster than the Kent variant – we saw what happened with that in December – it means if it gets out of hand we’ll have a very, very large number of cases.

“And so even with the protection that the vaccine gives you – the vaccine protection is very high but it is not absolute.”

Mr Hancock defended the timing of the government’s decision to put India on the UK’s travel “red list” on 23 April, which some have criticised as coming too late.

“This variant was notified as a variant under investigation after we’d already put India on the red list,” he said.

“The decision to put India on the red list was taken because of the high positivity rate of people coming from India and looking at the epi-curve in India.

“When we put Pakistan on the red list at the start of April that’s because the proportion of people testing positive coming in from Pakistan was three times higher than the proportion coming from India,

“And it was only after we put India on the red list that this variant went under investigation, and then earlier this month it became a variant of concern.”

Asked if Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s planned trip to India in late April – in a bid to boost trade talks – had impacted the government’s decisions on travel restrictions for India, Mr Hancock replied: “We take these decisions based on the evidence.”

In a later broadcast interview, Mr Hancock admitted it is “quite likely” the Indian variant of will become the dominant variant in the UK.

“We don’t know exactly how much more transmissible it is but I think it is likely it will become the dominant variant here,” he told the BBC.