Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday Britain would accelerate its COVID-19 vaccination programme in an attempt to contain the fast-spreading Indian coronavirus variant. Cases of the strain have doubled in recent days, with surge testing deployed in affected areas, most of which are in the North West of England.
It comes as it emerged that four people in the UK have died with the Indian variant of COVID-19 – the first known domestic deaths from this particular strain.
Mr Johnson issued stark warnings regarding the India variant last night, saying England will face “hard choices” if the Indian variant of concern turns out to be much more transmissible than others.
But despite the threat of the variant, the Government will still press ahead with lifting restrictions further on Monday.
During the Downing Street briefing, the Prime Minister said: “I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.
“But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June.”
Monday will see the return of indoor socialising in private and public spaces for the first time since before Christmas, making way for June 21, when all restrictions are earmarked to end.
However, Mr Johnson also urged people to “think really carefully” about the risk to loved ones, “especially if they haven’t had that second dose or if it hasn’t yet had time to take full effect”.
The prospect of local lockdowns has also not been ruled out by Government ministers.
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Mr Johnson said second doses – which give people maximum protection against COVID-19 – will be brought forward from the planned 12-week interval to eight weeks.
He said: “I believe we should trust in our vaccines to protect the public whilst monitoring the situation as it develops very closely because the race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter and it’s more important than ever, therefore, that people get the protection of a second dose.
“So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over-50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose.”
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“This move is a belt-and-braces approach to ensure as many people as possible have the full protection a vaccine has to offer – make sure to book in your jab when contacted.”
As well as accelerated second doses, there will be targeted activity in the worst affected areas, including enhanced testing and contact tracing.
In Bolton, which has one of the highest case rates of the variant in the country, mobile testing units have been deployed and door-to-door PCR Covid testing has been offered to 22,000 residents.