Boris Johnson is increasingly optimistic that coronavirus restrictions can end as planned on June 21 after early data suggested that the Indian variant was not spreading as fast as previously feared.
Hospital admissions are “fairly flat” in variant hotspots while initial estimates suggest a smaller increase in transmissibility that would not risk overwhelming the NHS if restrictions end next month.
The prime minister said last night that he was “even more cautiously optimistic than I was last Thursday”, telling the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs: “I know there are anxieties about new variants. But we can see nothing to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map.”
The mood has improved as scientists see signs that the variant may not be 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant, as had been feared. While advisers concluded last week that 50 per cent was a realistic possibility it is now considered the top end of a plausible range. Some of the speed at which it has spread is being attributed to the large, multi-generational households in densely populated areas where it was introduced.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said how much more transmissible the variant was than the Kent strain was “the million-dollar question” but expressed cautious optimism that it was more likely to be 20-30 per cent.
A firmer figure is expected to emerge next week, with government sources stressing that the data was still preliminary and the picture could change significantly again. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said it was too early to say whether restrictions would end on June 21 as planned. “We will give a decision on June 14, using all the information that we have up until then,” he said.
Data suggests that outside Bolton levels of the Indian variant are not increasing significantly. “The increase in transmission does not look like it’s universal,” a government source said.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of several scientific advisory groups, said that there was a “a glimmer of hope from the recent data that whilst this variant does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data”.
Earlier Johnson said that after looking at the data there was “increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant”. This is understood to be on the basis of laboratory and hospital data that the vaccines are good at preventing severe illness. It is unclear whether they are less effective at preventing mild illness and transmission.
Hospital data from Bolton and other hotspots is expected to give the first sign of whether vaccine coverage will be enough to stop a wave of serious illness and deaths. Yesterday there were 25 people in Bolton in hospital, up from 18 at the weekend. Hancock said that “the majority” had not been vaccinated.
Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, said that the rise was too small to draw conclusions.
Van-Tam said the country faced a “straight race” between the variant and vaccines, saying that as the NHS aimed to “turbo-boost” jabs — with appointments opening to those aged 34 and 35 today — people could slow down infections by “cautious behaviour”.
He repeated his advice at the end of the first lockdown not to “tear the pants out of it”, saying: “If it is possible to do something outside, better to do it outside. If it is possible to do something with smaller numbers with people you know, rather than multiple new contacts, it’s better to do that.”
Nationally he said that cases were “absolutely flat” at just over 2,000 a day. Known cases of the Indian variant are up 28 per cent since Monday to 2,967. Surge testing will extend to Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Kirklees, North Tyneside and Hounslow in London.