New Indian Variant ‘Could Pose a Serious Disruption’ to Full Reopening in June, Boris Warns

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that while rising cases of the Indian variant of the Chinese coronavirus will not affect phase three of unlocking the country on Monday, if the strain is found to pose a “serious disruption to our progress”, it could be “more difficult” to fully lift restrictions next month.

In recent days, the prime minister has expressed his concern over the spread of the new strain in the north-west of England, affecting areas such as Bolton and Blackburn, raising questions of whether such an outbreak could force a delay of fully ending restrictions. Four people have died from the Indian strain as of May 12th, according to Public Health England (PHE).

Speaking during a press conference from Downing Street on Friday, Mr Johnson signalled that the roadmap might change depending on how infectious the new strain is, saying: “We believe this variant is more transmissible than the previous one… but we don’t know by how much. I’m told that if it’s only marginally more transmissible, we can continue as planned. But if the variant is significantly more transmissible, we’re likely to face some hard choices.”

Seeking to reassure Britons that stage three of ending lockdown would still go ahead on the 17th of May, however, Johnson continued: “At this stage, there is no evidence of increased cases translating into unmanageable pressures on the NHS, even in Bolton, and infections, deaths, and hospitalisations nationally remain at their lowest level since last Summer.

“So I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our roadmap, and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.”

But he warned: “I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June. And I must stress that we will do whatever it takes to keep the public safe.”

The prime minister said that they had no evidence that current vaccines would be less effective at protecting people against severe illness or hospitalisation. He also emphasised the importance of the vaccination programme and announced an acceleration of administering the remaining second doses to over-50s and those clinically vulnerable, decreasing the delay between administering the two doses for many in those groups from 12 to eight weeks.

Johnson’s remarks on Friday evening are in line with the government vaccine minister’s comments this morning that while the government has no plans to postpone stage three, the “four tests” — which includes proof that new strains are not fundamentally changing the level of risk — must be met before a full relaxation of restrictions as planned on June 21st.

Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi told LBC radio in comments reported by The Guardian: “We have got to break the cycle of infection, because one of those big tests was infection rates have to be suppressed, and the other big test is variants. If those cause a problem, then the tests will fail. The four tests have to be met for 21 June.”

Repeating his favourite refrain that Britons need to use “common sense” when interacting with loved ones after stage three, Johnson concluded: “And if you’re seeing loved ones, think really carefully about the risk to them, especially if they haven’t had that second dose of it hadn’t had time to take full effect.

“I want us to trust people to be responsible, and to do the right thing. That’s the way to live with this virus while protecting the NHS and restoring our freedoms. It’s very clear, now, we’re going to have to live with this new variant of the virus for some time. So let’s work together, and let’s exercise caution and common sense,” he said, reiterating that despite a coming end of restrictions, the Chinese virus will be with Britons for the foreseeable future.

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