Civil servants are drawing up contingency plans to delay the June 21 easing of England’s lockdown restrictions, as the UK reported another large rise in coronavirus cases on Friday and surge testing for the Delta variant was launched in parts of Berkshire.
Pressure from scientists on prime minister Boris Johnson to leave some Covid-19 measures in place for England intensified with further evidence that the more contagious Delta variant originally detected in India was displacing the previously dominant Alpha (Kent) variant and pushing up infections fast.
On Saturday NHS Test and Trace began surge testing in Reading and Wokingham following identification of cases of the Delta variant first identified in India.
On Friday, 6,238 further cases of Covid-19 were reported, the most since March 15. Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that 85,600 people in England were infected in the week to May 29 — about one in every 640 — up from one in 1,120 people the week before.
A senior civil servant closely involved with coronavirus planning said officials were drawing up contingency plans to delay the fourth and final phase of easing, possibly to July 5, if the data suggested it was necessary. “A variety of options are being drawn up, including a delay to step four and trading off some measures against others.”
Another Whitehall insider said there was an increasing sense that a “smallish delay” may be likely. “Irreversibility is key to this. The prime minister doesn’t want to go backwards, so if it’s a choice of more measures in the future, I think he can stomach a minor delay,” they said.
But one senior Downing Street official cautioned “we’re not in that space yet” for a delay. “There’s still nothing in the data that shows we need to change our plans.” The official added that there would be more clarity in the data by the end of next week.
The Independent Sage group of scientists issued an “emergency statement” urging the government to rule out immediately plans to lift the last restrictions on June 21. Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician at University College London, told the group’s weekly briefing: “We now have an exponentially increasing dominant variant that is more transmissible, more vaccine resistant and likely more severe than Alpha.”
But studies show full inoculation has been effective so far in reducing hospitalisation and deaths from the Delta strain.
Sir John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, told the Financial Times that the proportion of fully vaccinated people in the UK remained “too low” for him to feel “entirely comfortable” with a full unlocking on June 21, adding that it was sensible to wait for more data to become available before a final decision was made.
By June 3, half of the adult UK population had received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. According to Public Health England, both the Oxford/AstraZeneca and BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines are only 33 per cent effective against symptomatic disease after one dose, with efficacy rising steeply after the second dose.
“I think we need to go further . . . I’d be a lot more comfortable if we were closer to 70 per cent by June 21,” said Bell. “My sense is that if things look on the edge or are starting to get more serious then running it out for another two weeks would help manage that, while we get everybody vaccinated.”
However, he added his concerns were “tempered” by the fact that scientists had yet to identify “a truly vaccine resistant strain” and the number of hospital admissions was not gaining pace.
Hospital admissions dipped 2 per cent in the UK in the week to May 31. Deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test fell by three to just 55 in the week to June 4.
Also on Friday, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency extended its approval for the Pfizer Covid vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds, following a similar decision by the European Medicines Agency last week.
PHE data released this week showed the surge was over represented among school-aged children, with several clusters identified in schools.
However the approval does not mean the group will start receiving the shot immediately.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will advise whether the government’s inoculation programme against Covid-19 will be extended to this age group. It is not clear when that will happen. Currently, in the UK, vaccination is not routinely offered to patients aged younger than 18.