LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday (May 13) he was “anxious” about a rise in the UK of the coronavirus B1617 variant first identified in India, after a closely monitored study of infections in England found the variant is becoming more prevalent just ahead of the next big easing of lockdown restrictions.
“It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it," Johnson said.
“We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do. There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out.”
In its latest assessment published on Thursday, Imperial College London said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August following a strict lockdown and a successful roll-out of vaccines.
However, it warned that the COVID-19 virus variant from India should be closely monitored.
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The so-called REACT study found that the B1617 variant from India, designated “of concern” because it could be more transmissible, was identified in 7.7 per cent of the 127,000 cases tested between Apr 15 and May 3.
Professor Steven Riley from Imperial College said it is unclear whether the Indian variant is more transmissible but warned that "this is a risk".
Though the British government and scientists have said new cases may start to go up in coming weeks, it is unclear whether that will lead to a big increase in hospitalisations and deaths given that most of those people deemed vulnerable have been vaccinated.
Over the past few weeks as India has suffered a catastrophic resurgence of the virus, concerns have grown around the world about potential new variants bypassing the protections offered by vaccines.
Across the UK, lockdown restrictions are being lifted. The next easing in England is set to take place on Monday when two households will be able to mix indoors and pubs and restaurants will be able to serve customers inside, among other changes. The other nations of the UK - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - have also laid out similar plans for the coming weeks.
The government hopes to lift most remaining restrictions on social contact in June.
“At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on Jun 21, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get,” Johnson said.
The government's scientific advisory committee, known as SAGE, will be making recommendations about the pandemic's path. It is due to meet later.
Currently there are few signs the previous easing has led to an increase in new infections, which are averaging around 2,000 a day across the UK, compared with nearly 70,000 recorded in January at the peak of the second wave.
The fall in infections has led to a sharp decline in daily coronavirus-related deaths, with 11 reported on Wednesday. Still, the UK has recorded Europe's highest virus-related death toll, at more than 127,600.
The successful roll-out of vaccines has also helped keep a lid on infections alongside the lockdown.
Around 54 per cent of the British population has had at least one dose of vaccine with about a quarter having received two doses. The roll-out is being expanded further, with vaccines now being made available to people aged 38 and 39.