Boris Johnson was under mounting pressure on Saturday to reconsider Monday’s relaxation of Covid rules in England because of the threat posed by the India variant. His own advisers and independent health experts raised fears that it could lead to a surge in hospital admissions, especially among young adults.
Dr Kit Yates, a member of the Independent Sage committee of scientific experts, told the Observer that Johnson should delay Monday’s unlocking by a fortnight to allow more people to be vaccinated. By pressing ahead, Yates said the prime minister would be breaching one of the government’s four key tests – that of risk assessment not being changed by a new variant – that he had previously insisted would guide all decisions on when and whether to ease restrictions.
“At this point the precautionary principle should kick in,” Yates said. “The more people we can vaccinate, the safer we become. Even a couple of weeks at this point could make a huge difference in the face of this seemingly more transmissible variant. A pause would also buy us time to understand more about the properties of the variant, which would put us in a better position to plan what comes next.”
“The rapid rises in B.1.617.2 and the waves of hospitalisations that are predicted by the Sage modelling means that the risk has fundamentally changed and that the fourth test is not being met. The data suggesting a reassessment of the roadmap is there.”
There are fears the new India variant could trigger a third wave, just as the “big bang” relaxation approaches. Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s taskforce on new and emerging viruses (Nervtag), said the relaxations would drive up the numbers infected with the India variant and that unvaccinated younger adults would be most at risk.
“Indoor mixing will almost certainly increase transmission of the B.1.617.2 variant but at this stage nobody can be sure by how much,” he said.
Hayward added that many people would end up in hospital if, as feared, the variant proved 40% more transmissible than previous variants, notably the Kent variant, which drove the lethal second wave over the winter. Modelling by the government’s own Sage committee of scientific advisers has already said the increase in transmissibility from the new variant could be as high as 50%.