UK Govt Scientists Hold Emergency Meeting on Indian Covid Variant Spread

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JUNE 05: Jess Baddams, paramedic, holds a blood sample as she poses for a photograph during an antibody testing program at the Hollymore Ambulance Hub of the West Midlands Ambulance Service, operated by the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, on June 5, 2020 in Birmingham, …
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A Cabinet minister confirmed the government’s team of scientific advisors is holding an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the Indian variant of the Chinese coronavirus, with the prime minister saying there was “increasing concern” of its spread in the UK.

On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the next phase of unlocking from restrictions was on track, the same day figures revealing England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland had seen no daily deaths from the Chinese virus for the first time since July 2020.

However, days later, he said there was rising concern over an emerging Indian variant, with the prime minister telling the House of Commons on Wednesday that “we must be vigilant, because the threat of this virus remains real and new variants — including the one first identified in India, which is of increasing concern here in the UK — pose a potentially lethal danger. Caution has to be our watchword.”

Johnson also said there was a “high likelihood of a surge this winter when the weather assists the transmission of all respiratory diseases and the pressure on our NHS is most acute”.

Speaking to Sky News on Thursday morning, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly confirmed that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was holding an emergency meeting to discuss the new variant, saying: “The scientists on SAGE will make their assessments, they will report back to government and we will make decisions based on the data and the evidence that they provide.

“The prime minister and the health secretary have always been clear that the easing of restrictions which will allow us to get back to normality will be done at a pace and in a way which is safe. We will always be driven by the data.”

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said on Wednesday that it was “pretty confident that the vaccines will be effective against this variant”.

But the new strain, B1.617.2, first discovered in India, could impact the planned ending of restrictions in England. Speaking to the i newspaper, a member of SAGE allegedly said that while phase three of easing lockdown is expected to go ahead as planned on Monday, “a delay is possible” for the final phase of reopening on June 21st.

There are currently clusters of the Indian strain in some areas of England, including Bolton, Blackburn, Greater Manchester, south Northamptonshire, and Bedford.

Environment Secretary George Eustace would not rule out the return of localised lockdowns, telling Sky News on Thursday: “We can’t rule anything out but our plan that has been set out by the Prime Minister and the reason we are being incredibly cautious about exiting lockdown is because we want this to be the last.”

However, the University of Oxford’s Professor James Naismith claimed that local lockdowns may not be effective against the new variant. Professor Naismith told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in comments reported by The Telegraph that the Indian variant could spread “way beyond” the spots where the virus was detected, adding: “When we tried locally having different restrictions in different regions that didn’t really make any difference. So I don’t think thinking about a localised strategy for containment will really work.”

Earlier this month, First Secretary of State Dominic Raab suggested that even if the full lifting goes ahead on June 21st, some “safeguards”, including masks and social distancing, could still be in place.

Prime Minister Johnson had also appeared to suggest that restrictions could return at another date, telling the House of Commons on Wednesday: “The end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic.”

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