Major Lockdown Lifting Overshadowed By Indian Variant Spread
The spread of the Indian variant could cause disruption to the government's lockdown roadmap, Matt Hancock has suggested.
The long-awaited third step in the government's unlocking roadmap is set to take place tomorrow, allowing pubs and restaurants to open indoors, letting groups of six people meet indoors, and crucially, giving us the opportunity to hug our loved ones again.
But the big leap towards normality is overshadowed by the continued spread of the B.1.617.2 Indian variant which experts fear could be as much as 50% more transmissible than the other identified strains.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said more investigative work was needed on the strain, but warned it had the potential to "spread like wildfire" amongst unvaccinated people.
And speaking on Sky's Sophy Ridge, Hancock said he was "confident" that tomorrow's easing could go ahead as planned, but refused to rule out the possibility that some, or all, of the restrictions could be put back in place if virus again spreads out of control.
"I very much hope not and our goal remains, our strategy remains, to take a cautious and irreversible approach to ensure that we're always looking at the data all the way through, and crucially to use the vaccine to get us out of this pandemic," he said.
It is worth highlighting that just 1,300 cases have been identified across the UK so far, with a very small number of those people being hospitalised because of the disease.
Among those, Hancock said, was a significant number of people who had been eligible for the vaccine but had failed to take it.
It is why the government is now boosting efforts to vaccinate people, including introducing a new "surge" jab policy in areas such as Bolton, where the new strain has taken hold.
Ministers hope the plans will help stamp out the spread, especially among vulnerable people, with Hancock pointing to encouraging preliminary data which appear to show the current crop of vaccines are effective at tackling the new strain.
"There's new very early data from Oxford University, and I would stress that this is from the labs, it's not clinical data, and it's very early," he said.
"But it does give us a degree of confidence that the vaccines work against this India variant, but it is clearly more transmissible and has been spreading fast in the groups where there's a cluster."
But the spread of the new variant has triggered anger from opposition MPs, who have accused the government of being too slow to act in putting India on the travel "red list", effectively stopping non-UK residents from entering the country.
Writing for PoliticsHome, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the importation of the new strain was "entirely foreseeable" and accused the Prime Minister of "recklessness" by failing to implement the travel ban on India sooner.
And he urged the government to "rethink" their plans for international travel to be resumed, albeit in a limited capacity, from Monday, "not least because Ministers have not even done the groundwork in developing an internationally recognised vaccine passport".
But a frustrated Hancock hit back at "Captain Hindsight" questions, including over whether the PM's decision on India had been influenced by a proposed trade trip to the country which he was later forced to cancel, insisting all decisions had been made based on the data.