What are the latest developments?
The number of identified cases of the Indian variant in the UK has more than doubled in a week, from 520 to 1,313, according to the most recent figures. The areas with the highest numbers so far include Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, Erewash in Derbyshire and Bedford, all in England, and Moray in Scotland.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Sunday that it was “quite likely” this would become the dominant variant across the UK, just as the Kent variant did after it emerged in December. Cases are being detected in new places every day, including Essex, Cambridge and London in recent days. One director of public health in an area where the first cases have just emerged said: “It’s everywhere, to be honest.”
How transmissible is it?
That is the key question that is concerning scientists and ministers. According to the minutes of a meeting last Tuesday of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), advisers believe the transmission of B.1.617.2, as the Indian variant is known, “is currently faster than that of the B.1.1.7 variant” – the Kent variant. Cases are doubling in a week or less in some areas, Sage reported.
They said that it was … “highly likely that this variant is more transmissible than B.1.1.7, and it is a realistic possibility that it is as much as 50% more transmissible.”
How much threat does the new variant pose?
Hancock said on Sunday that it could “spread like wildfire among the unvaccinated groups”. In Bolton, the “vast majority” of people in hospital with Covid linked to the Indian variant had not taken up their offer of a jab, he added.
Prof Sir Mark Walport, a former chief scientific adviser to the government, has said the pandemic is at a “perilous moment”. Prof John Edmunds, a member of Sage, said that while the Indian variant represented “a new threat”, the UK was in a much better position than it was before Christmas, soon after the Kent variant was discovered.
“I think we should be concerned but not panicking. We’re in a much, much better place now than we were when the Kent variant first hit us back in November, December,” Edmunds said. “Now the hospitals are … virtually empty of Covid patients and two-thirds of the adult population have been vaccinated.”
Do the vaccines work against the Indian variant?
There is cautious optimism that they do. Hancock said “new, very early data” from Oxford University gave confidence that the vaccines in use in the UK – Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – do confer protection against it. As a result, the planned next step of reopening society can safely go ahead on Monday, he believes.
John Bell, the regius professor of medicine at Oxford, is similarly upbeat. He told Times Radio this weekend: “In terms of severe disease, hospital admissions and death, I think the vaccinated population are going to be fine and we just need to pump our way through this.”
But Dr Kit Yates, a member of Independent Sage, cautioned: “Vaccines do not work 100%. If Covid is allowed to circulate at high levels among the unvaccinated population, there will still be a small proportion of vaccinated people who may get the disease and become severely ill.”