British scientists must urgently learn as much as possible about the Indian Covid-19 variant, a leading epidemiologist has warned, as calls mount for the country to be added to the Government’s “red list”.
Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), which provides evidence on coronavirus to the Government’s Sage committee, said as much information about the new variant must be gathered “as quickly as possible”.
According to the latest update from Public Health England, 77 confirmed cases of the B.1.617 variant, which was first discovered in India, have been detected in the UK.
Environment Secretary George Eustice defended the Government’s decision not to further restrict travel to the country, but said the situation is being kept “under regular review”.
Amid growing fears that the new strain could delay the Government’s lockdown easing road map, Mr Eustice added that it is “too early to say” whether all hospitality businesses can open on May 17 as ministers must keep “a close eye on these variants of concern”.
Speaking during the morning broadcast round, Mr Eustice said there is no evidence that the Indian variant of coronavirus is able to «get around» the vaccine.
“The last I think I saw… there were around 70 cases. But I think I’ve seen lots of different numbers on different variants – you’ll appreciate, there is quite a few – so it is a fairly small number at the moment. But it is something that we are watching.
«I’m told that there is no evidence at the moment that this particular variant is able to get around the vaccine, for instance, or indeed that it is necessarily more contagious than the others,» he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday.
Mr Eustice also said that despite rising infection rates in India, «it is appropriate» that the Prime Minister’s planned trip to the country should go ahead later this month.
Boris Johnson is due to travel to India in the last week of April in a trip that has already been cut short as infections in the country continue to climb.
Amid rising calls for travel to and from India to be banned, Mr Eustice confirmed that if scientists recommended the move, the Government would act.
Moving India onto the so-called “red list” would mean only UK nationals could return from the country and those doing so must pay to quarantine in a Government-approved hotel for 10 days.
Labour’s shadow home secretary said new travel data showed almost 100,000 people had flown between India and the UK during January and February without requirement to quarantine in a hotel, as he accused the Government of not doing enough to keep out coronavirus mutations.
Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “This British reopening is being put at risk by ministers’ reckless refusal to protect our borders against Covid.”
Probed on the matter on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, the Environment Secretary said: «There are quite a lot of robust tests and checks for anybody coming into the country.
«But, look, we keep this under regular review. We take the advice of the scientific experts on this. If the advice is we should change that and move to the red list we would.»
Responding to concerns that the discovery of the Indian variant in the UK may lead to the delay of the Government’s lockdown easing, the Environment Secretary admitted that it is «too early to say» whether all hospitality businesses can open on May 17.
Mr Eustice said the Government is «on track with the rollout of the vaccination programme», adding: «But we are being a bit cautious here.
«So although we have now got 60% of the adult population vaccinated we do just have to keep a close eye on these variants of concern.
«Also, see what the impacts are of the easements we have just made, the loosenings we have just made, before moving to the next stage.»
The Cabinet minister’s comments came as a leading professor called the Indian variant «concerning».
Mr Tildesley told BBC Breakfast: «What’s concerning about the Indian variant is there appear to be two mutations which… may make the vaccines less effective, and may make the virus more transmissible.»
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, added that whilst there is not yet enough data to officially classify the new Indian strain as a «variant of concern», investigations are ongoing.
«We have seen a couple of cases (of the Indian variant) that haven’t arisen from travel but we’re still trying to undergo the investigations to look in great detail at where they might have acquired it from,» she told the BBC.
She added: «To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it is increased transmissibility, increased severity or vaccine evading, and we just don’t have that yet.”
Noting that there have been cases where people had become re-infected by different strains of the virus, Dr Hopkins said: «That’s to be expected, we know that these vaccines aren’t 100% protecting you against infection and that’s why we ask people to take caution.
«You can see that they’re not as good against the South African variant as they are against our own (variant) B117 at preventing infection and transmission.»
Elsewhere, thousands of fans are returning to Wembley Stadium on Sunday as part of a Government programme to ensure the safe return of live entertainment.
FA Cup semi-final spectators will be part of a large research project looking at how fans and audiences can safely attend events again, with music events to follow in the coming weeks.
Along with the World Snooker Championship, which started on Saturday, the pilots will be part of the UK Government’s science-led Events Research Programme (ERP).