HUGGING people from May 17 “could be a mistake” amid the fast spread of a new Indian variant, experts say.
Dr Hilary Jones said there is a “substantial” risk in hugging other people, even if the Government allows it.
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The Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to allow hugging for close friends and family in England from next Monday, ahead of the lift in social distancing restrictions on June 21.
It means friends and family will finally be able to embrace one another after a year.
Asked what the risk of Covid was, Dr Hilary told Good Morning Britain: “Biologically it’s quite substantial.
“If you are in hugging range, you’re touching somebody, your face is right next to theirs, you are going to be breathing the breath they are exhaling.
“The virus is transmitted through aerosol droplets, so the risk is much higher.”
A number of experts have urged caution over hugging too many people, including Prof Cath Noakes – a member of the Government scientific advisory group, Sage.
Prof Noakes, of University of Liverpool, told the BBC it would worry her “if we were advocating we could hug all of our friends every time we meet them again”.
Dr Hilary said: “Professor Noakes, she’s part of SAGE, she’s saying that actually she’s worried. She’s saying that hugs should be selective.
“They should be short, they should be selective… hug your children, hug your grandchildren, not promiscuous hugs we’re not talking about here, not hugging everybody, not getting too close for too long.
“Right now it might be a mistake, because we have got these new variants, we’ve still got 2,000 cases that we know about every day, probably a lot more that we’re not testing for, so it is still time to be cautious.”
Rapid Indian variant
One expert suggested it would be a mistake to allow more freedoms from May 17 because the new Indian variant is rapidly spreading.
Data shows the Indian variant has grown so quickly it could soon overtake the dominant “Kent” variant and potentially cause another wave of infections.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, told GMB: “We have a new variant growing within the UK.
“Cases of this new variant are doubling every week within the UK while other variants are dropping.
“Overall cases have been dropping, which shows that even with current restrictions in place, this variant is growing very very quickly.
“In London, 50 per cent of cases now are no longer the so-called Kent variant.”
Dr Gurdasani added: “I can’t possibly imagine anything more concerning than a variant that we don’t know anything about in terms of vaccine efficacy and transmissibility that’s increased [cases] from 0 per cent frequency four weeks ago to being almost dominant in many parts of the UK now.
“If this is not a point of concern and a point of reconsidering easing restrictions, I don’t know what would be.”
‘Have to get on with life’
But one health expert said people “can’t go on mothballing ourselves forever” amid the hugging debate.
Dr David Nabarro, special envoy on Covid-19 for the World Health Organisation, told Sky News: “I’m pleased with the reality that people are being quite cautious, perhaps even a little bit afraid, of what this virus might bring.
“But I think, at the same time, we’ve got to get on with life, and we can’t go on mothballing ourselves forever.
“So, finding a way to restart, despite this fear, is what I think we will have to do.
“We must maintain a very vigilant posture in the coming months because there will no doubt be variants appearing.
“But, at the same time, we have to get on with life so we have to just be on the lookout for new spikes of disease and deal with them when they come.”
The head of the Oxford University vaccine group also believes May 17 is the right time to ease further restrictions in England, and perhaps allow closer intimacy between friends and family.
Professor Andrew Pollard was asked on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether it would be safe for hugging in a week.
Indian Covid variant could overtake Kent as dominant strain in WEEKS
He said the country has seen the “extraordinary success” of both the vaccination programme and the “prolonged” lockdown.
“I think it is time to start, based on the very careful modelling that’s been done, relaxing some of those restrictions,” he said.
“That means we’re in a very fortunate position here in the UK.”