India should be placed on the UK’s “red list” for travel after the discovery of a new coronavirus variant, according to a leading scientist.
Prof Danny Altmann, from Imperial College London, said it was “mystifying” and “confounding” that those flying in from the country were not required to stay in a hotel.
He warned that the Indian mutation of the virus could “scupper” the UK’s path to further easing of restrictions, despite the lockdown and vaccine programme leading to cases falling to a seven-month low.
Public Health England reported that 77 cases of the B.1.617 variant, which was first discovered in India, have been found. The first were detected in specimens dating back to February, the Guardian reported on Friday.
Officials have designated the new strain a variant under investigation rather than a variant of concern, such as the Manaus (Brazilian) or South African variants.
However, Altmann said he suspected it would be escalated to a variant of concern as, like the South African variant, it holds properties that allow it to evade the coronavirus vaccines currently on offer, and because it is more transmissible, similar to the Californian version of Covid.
“I think we should be terribly concerned about it,” the professor of immunology told the BBC.
“[Variants of concern] are things that can most scupper our escape plan at the moment and give us a third wave. They are a worry.”
India is not on the government’s “red list” for travel, which refuses entry into the UK to people who have been in those countries in the previous 10 days.
British and Irish nationals, or people with UK residency rights, are able to return from red-list countries but must isolate in a quarantine hotel for 10 days.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the government’s red list of travel ban countries was “under constant review” when asked why India did not feature on it.
They added that Boris Johnson’s trip to India – his first major international visit since securing a Brexit trade deal with Brussels – was “still happening later this month”.
It was announced earlier this week that the trip would be “slightly shorter” than the initial four days planned, with most of the meetings expected to be shoehorned into a single day.
Prof Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said coronavirus variants were unlikely to set lockdown easing back to “square one” because immunity gained from vaccines “won’t just disappear”.
He said he expected a “gradual erosion” of vaccine protection as the virus evolved but not enough to “scupper” the prime minister’s roadmap.
He told Times Radio: “We’ve all expected evolution of this virus to occur from the start. I also think that we know from other viruses and previous experience that the immunity that vaccines give won’t just disappear.
“It will be a gradual erosion. It won’t be back to square one. I would be really surprised if that happened. So, I think, possibly, that interpretation is a bit pessimistic.”
India recorded a daily increase of 217,353 infections on Friday, the country’s second record in consecutive days, pushing its total since the pandemic began past 14.2m.
It comes amid a continuing decline in coronavirus infections across Britain.
About one in 480 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to 10 April – the lowest figure since the week to 19 September last year, according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics.
Infection rates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland followed a similar trend of depreciating numbers, the data showed.