The UK is facing a “quite perilous moment” as the Delta coronavirus variant, first identified in India, takes over, accounting for three-quarters of cases, with no indication yet if the 21 June lifting of restrictions in England will be put on hold.
The government’s former chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir Mark Walport, said it was “not impossible” that the country was in the foothills of new wave.
“I hope not, but it’s not impossible,” Walport told BBC Breakfast. While the B.1.1.7 variant, or “UK variant”, was disappearing, the B.1.617.2 variant, or India variant, was taking over, he said. The World Health Organization has renamed B.1.1.7 as the Alpha variant, and B.1.617.2 as the Delta variant.
Walport said: “It is a quite perilous moment, but we’ve just got to keep our fingers crossed that the measures work.” He added: “It’s clear that the B.1.617.2 variant is taking over – it accounts for about 75% of those cases which have been typed – the numbers of infections are getting up, but we would expect that.
“On the much better news side is the fact that hospital admissions are not surging. If anything, overall they’re coming down, though in some parts of the country where the B.1.617 is at its worst they are increasing slightly, so it is genuinely very, very finely balanced.”
More data was needed before a final decision could be made about the 21 June easing of restrictions, he said. “We need to substitute speculation for scientific data that’s the truth of the matter, as everyone has said in the last few days, the situation is very delicately balanced with some three sets of moving parts.
“Firstly we have got a new more transmissible variant, of that there is no doubt, though we don’t know exactly how much more transmissible. Secondly, there’s been a change in behaviour following the relaxation of measures on 17 May, and the effects of that will just be starting to come through.
“And thirdly, we’ve got a vaccination programme that is very successful, but with a lot of people that still need both their second dose of vaccine and vaccination from scratch. I’m afraid that weeks before the prime minister has to make the difficult decision it is going to be necessary to bring in the data.”
The small business minister, Paul Scully, said the government would be guided by data, not dates, on deciding on whether to stick to the roadmap and a 21 June easing of restrictions.
He told Sky News: “‘This isn’t fudge. What we have said is look at the data. We will make a decision on 14 June as to what’s happening on the 21st. And clearly we know the fact that the case numbers are going up, we do want to make sure that we will only open up based on data not those dates. And so, this isn’t fudge. This is making sure that we just don’t speculate. That we use the latest information and the most accurate information.”
Ramping up the vaccination programme was key to staying on the roadmap, he said. “We’re taking a careful view on where any increase in infections with the Indian variant are happening and that’s why we’re looking at surge-testing in those areas and really making sure we’re getting on the front foot,” he said.
“But by accelerating the vaccination programme and making people get their second jabs … those vaccinations can help us break that cycle of people having to go to hospital if they get Covid. And that’s what’s going to keep us on the roadmap.”