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The lifting of all legal limits on social contact in England next month is “very much in the balance”, one of the government’s leading coronavirus advisers has said, amid “hints” that vaccines may be less effective at slowing the new virulent strain of Covid-19.
Prof Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling Group (SPI-M), said early data suggested vaccines protected against serious illness but may be less effective at stopping transmission of the variant first detected in India.
He said there was a “glimmer of hope” that the B.1.617.2 variant may be less transmissible than first feared but that it would take time to be sure about that. Asked whether it was realistic for England to emerge fully from lockdown on 21 June, Ferguson said: “I think that’s being actively considered. I think it’s very much in the balance. The data collected in the next two to three weeks will determine that.
Ministers are expected to announce in the coming days whether the UK’s route out of lockdown will be delayed due to a sharp rise in cases in areas such as Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford. Infections in some parts of the country have jumped tenfold in a week, fuelled by the more transmissible B.1.617.2 variant.
Boris Johnson will face questions on Wednesday about why India was not added to the travel “red list” before 23 April, allowing the variant to be imported into the UK where it is being spread among mostly young people in densely populated communities. Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen account for one in five of all 2,323 cases of the variant, according to the latest data given on Monday.
Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said that while the variant had a “significant growth advantage” over winter’s Kent variant, “the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data”.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said last week there was a “realistic possibility” – equivalent to a 50/50 likelihood – that B.1.617.2 was as much as 50% more virulent than the Kent variant. If that was the case, it warned, hospitalisations could surpass the peak of the second wave in January.
Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there was a “good deal of confidence” that vaccines protect against severe Covid- disease and that the effect of the India variant would be “fairly marginal in terms of severe disease”.
However, he added there were “some hints” in the early data that vaccines may be less effective at preventing spread of B.1.617.2: “The thing we’re slightly concerned about is whether there’s an impact on the ability of vaccines to prevent infection or mild disease and therefore prevent transmission in the community.
“There are some hints – and it’s not vaccine-specific at the moment –- there are some hints in the data of reduced vaccine efficacy against infection against transmission.
“But we really have to wait until more data is gathered to be definitive about that but of course it’s a concern because if we don’t have the same level of action of vaccine blocking transmission it’s another way for the virus to amplify itself in the community.”
Ministers have suggested local lockdowns could be imposed on hotspot areas to allow the rest of the country to enjoy a return of freedoms from 21 June – a proposal that would be fiercely opposed, even by the government’s fellow Conservative MPs.
Ferguson said he did not believe locking down a particular borough, such as Bolton, would be effective on a wider scale. He said: “Locking down hotspot areas may work in those areas but just allows the rest of the country to reach a higher infection level and we know what the consequences of that were last year”.
David Greenhalgh, the Conservative leader of Bolton council, said on Wednesday there was a “danger of unrest” if the Greater Manchester town was locked down. He is understood to have made this warning in a call with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, last Friday.
Greenhalgh told the Today programme: “The people of Bolton have a great spirit and they come together when times are difficult, but this would be a very, very difficult situation to manage, I believe, if we went into a lockdown that we have experience of, personally experienced, in a town, that did not work.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: England lockdown end date ‘very much in the balance’, expert warns | Coronavirus