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UK Needs "Bespoke Agreement" With France To Help Keep South African Variant Out, Senior Scientific Adviser Warns

UK Needs 'Bespoke Agreement' With France To Help Keep South African Variant Out, Senior Scientific Adviser Warns

The government must prevent the South African variant from spreading in the UK, Professor Neil Ferguson has warned

4 min read

The government may need to create a "bespoke agreement" with France to help prevent the spread of the South African coronavirus variant to the UK, a senior scientific adviser has warned.

Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, was speaking as France joined Italy in implementing new lockdowns as the continent faces a new wave of infections. Most are believed to be the Kent variant, which has already moved through Britain.

"Perhaps more concern for the UK is that some countries are notably seeing a significant fraction, 5-10% of cases, of the South African variant," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"When infection levels go up in France, 30,000 cases a day, that implies there's at least 1,500-2,000 cases a day of the South African variant.

"That is the variant we really do want to keep out of the UK."

The South African variant, known as B.1.351 strain, has already been found here, but only in small numbers, but there are fears of it spreading as it may have more resistance to the current vaccines.

Ferguson said judgment was needed on how Britain trades with France, and looks ahead to the potential relaxation of travel from 17 May.

"I think there are important decisions coming up, and it's always a balancing act,” he said.

"How much we relax the current ban on international travel except for essential services.

"As a lot of essential travel between ourselves and France for business, commerce and trade, how can we reduce the risks associated with that travel.

"Those are policy decisions, I'm just raising the issue that we are doing so well with the vaccination campaign, we are driving down deaths at a faster rate than I ever thought was possible and that will allow us to open up."Asked if France should be added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’, he said: "I don't think that's necessarily a practical issue given the amount of trade.

“I think we need a more bespoke agreement which just tries to mitigate that risk, perhaps to a higher degree than we have now.

“That risk will increase over time. As we relax measures in this country, as we all hope we can do, then there becomes more opportunity for these strains which are at low level in the country right now to grow and cause a problem.”

Ferguson also suggested the upcoming reduction in vaccine supply, with more than five million jabs delayed in getting to the frontline, will not effect the overall rollout of.

"I don't think the delay will have an enormous effect,” he added.

"We'll still have enough vaccine to largely continue with the programme."He said the South African variant was of bigger concern: "Overall, I'm optimistic with this one caveat that we do need to keep these variants of concern at bay."

Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the government, said supply chain difficulties are "inevitable" and the public's confidence in the vaccine has not been affected.

He told Times Radio: "All the evidence is that the vaccines are being rolled out at an extraordinary rate.

"We should cross 26 million people having received their first dose of vaccine today and that includes a large majority of the most vulnerable people.

"It has been an extraordinary effort and these are vaccines that are being rolled out at a pace and scale that's never been done before so it's almost inevitable that from time to time there will be supply chain difficulties."The culture secretary Oliver Dowden also sought to reassure people the supply issues will not affect the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, but added there was still not a "full picture" of the impact of schools returning on the data.

"The road map is not affected, so at the moment, we remain on course for the next easing on (March) 29," he told LBC.

"It is worth bearing in mind though, we still need to fully analyse the effect of schools returning. We don't see any problems at the moment but we won't get a full picture for a while.

"If there is concerns around that, obviously we would have to review the dates."

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