LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – The number of British cases of a worrying coronavirus variant from India more than doubled for a second week as authorities also monitor a new mutation of the virus, adding fresh doubt to Britain plans to fully unlock the economy.
Health officials have now detected 3,424 cases of the B1.617.2 variant, also known as VOC-21APR-02, Public Health England said on Thursday (May 20) in a statement. That’s up from 1,313 last week, and 520 a week earlier. They’re also investigating a mutation called VUI-21MAY-01, with 49 cases logged so far.
Scientists at PHE say there is currently no evidence to suggest vaccines will be less effective in protecting people against severe illness from the India variant, but believe it could be more transmissible than the fast-spreading Kent variant that led to the country’s third lockdown in January.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that he was “anxious” about the Indian variant, and warned that it could affect the country’s plans to reopen the remaining bits of the economy from lockdown on June 21.
Those concerns prompted authorities to alter the country’s vaccination programme, shortening the interval between doses. And even though stage 3 of the government’s reopening plan went ahead on Monday, the fast spread of the new variant remain a cause for concern.
“As we start to get back to normal life, it is very important that we do not become complacent,” Health Security Agency Chief Executive Officer Jenny Harries said in PHE’s statement. “All of us need to remain responsible and vigilant.”
Nevertheless, ministers and officials this week have struck an increasingly optimistic tone, with the premier saying on Wednesday that he has “increasing confidence” vaccines are working against all coronavirus variants. More than 70 per cent of British adults have now had at least one dose of vaccine, making the country’s program one of the most advanced in the world.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Sky News on Friday that caution was the “watchword” when it came to reopening the economy further. He said that even if social distancing rules were lifted as planned, he would continue to wear a mask if he had signs of a cold.
Most of the 49 cases of the new variant under investigation are in Yorkshire and the Humber, in Northern England, according to PHE.
“There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease or renders the vaccines currently deployed any less effective,” it said.
On Monday, international holidays were allowed again, and pubs and restaurants were allowed to serve customers indoors. The government has said the final stage of reopening – which will be June 21 at the earliest, is dependent on the evolution of the virus.