Sunday, June 20, 2021

Won’t deviate from lockdown plans: UK PM Boris Johnson on B1.617.2 variant of Covid-19

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that experts continue to monitor the data on the B1.617.2 variant of Covid-19, first identified in India, but there is nothing conclusive yet that indicates that it would force Britain to deviate from its roadmap to lift lockdown restrictions fully next month.

Johnson said the government is keeping everything under “very close observation” following the emergence of the B1.617.2 variant of concern (VOC), which is feared to be on track to take over from the local B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the county of Kent, as the dominant coronavirus mutation in the country.

“We are looking at the epidemiology the whole time as it comes in and, at the moment, partly because we have built up such a wall of defences with the vaccination programme, I don’t see anything conclusive at the moment to say that we need to deviate from the roadmap,” he said, in reference to the government’s scheduled June 21 timeline for a complete lifting of lockdown restrictions.

“But we’ve got to be cautious and we are keeping everything under very close observation. We’ll know a lot more in a few days’ time,” the prime minister said.

Johnson used a visit to a vaccination centre in London to reiterate a message for the British public to continue to come forward for their vaccination when they are invited by the National Health Service (NHS) in order to protect against all variants of Covid-19 after vaccine hesitancy was flagged as one of the factors behind some of the B1.617.2 VOC hotspots in north-west England.

“The numbers (vaccinations) are incredibly high. And I know that… some people have been more vaccine hesitant than others, but actually, across the whole of society, the numbers continue to go up in every group. And that’s very, very encouraging. And I would urge everybody – just to make the obvious point – who is eligible for a vaccine, when you get your call up, when you get the notification from the NHS, come and get your jab,” he said.

Johnson’s message follows a similar drive by senior ministers, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock informing Parliament on Monday that vaccines seem effective against the highly transmissible B1.617.2 VOC.

“There are now 2,323 confirmed cases of B1617.2 in the UK; 483 of these cases have been seen in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, where it is now the dominant strain. Cases there have doubled in the last week and are rising in all age groups,” Hancock told the House of Commons in an update on the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

“In Blackburn, hospitalisations are stable, with eight people currently in hospital with Covid. In Bolton, 19 people are now in hospital with coronavirus, the majority of whom are eligible for a vaccine but have not yet had one. That shows that the new variant is not tending to penetrate into older vaccinated groups, and underlines again the importance of getting the jab — especially, but not only, among the vulnerable age groups,” he said.

The minister also updated members of Parliament on early evidence which suggests that B1.617.2 is more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 so-called Kent variant.

“We do not yet know to what extent it is more transmissible. While we do not have the complete picture of the impact of the vaccine, the early laboratory data from Oxford University corroborates the provisional evidence from the Royal Bolton Hospital and the initial observational data from India that vaccines are effective against the variant. This, of course, is reassuring, but the higher transmission poses a real risk,” he added.

According to latest data, more than 36.7 million people have had their first vaccine dose in the UK and more than 20.2 million have had their second. The NHS bookings for a vaccination are now open to all those aged 36 and over.

It follows Monday’s significant easing of lockdown rules, with people allowed to socialise indoors and travel around more freely after months. However, a planned review of long-term social distancing requirements for the end of this month is likely to be delayed as the spike in B1.617.2 VOC infections continues to be monitored.

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