Ministers will “flex” England’s vaccination programme in response to concerns over the spread of the India variant, a government minister has confirmed.
Areas where the B.1.617.2 variant, first identified in India, is spreading quickly could receive accelerated vaccinations for multi-generational households, with anyone over 18 offered the jab.
The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme more vaccine doses had been sent to Bolton in response to an increase in cases.
“We will flex the vaccine programme according to the clinical advice,” he said. “Even if you get your first dose now it’ll take two to three weeks before that protection’s in place and it begins to affect transmission rates, which especially among the younger cohorts is what’s important to break the cycle of transmission.”
Affected areas would also have a surge in testing by postcode, with tests then genome-sequenced. He urged anyone in the area to test regularly, and if they test positive for Covid to “isolate, isolate, isolate”.
“That is the way we break this cycle,” he said. “People need to take advantage of those free PCR tests, two tests a week of lateral flow to find out whether you’re positive and get your PCR test after that, that’s what’s really important.”
On Sky News, Zahawi said younger people in affected areas could be vaccinated sooner, and second doses of the vaccines could be brought forward depending on clinical advice.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said surge testing was already taking place in 15 areas across England.
It said cases of the India variant jumped from 520 to 1,313 in a weekand it was “actively monitoring the impact of this variant and its severity”.
But there was “no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on severity of disease or evades the vaccine”, it added.
Zahawi said there was no plan to cancel the move to ease more restrictions on 17 May but said four tests must be met for the 21 June lockdown relaxations to go ahead.
He told LBC radio: “We have got to break the cycle of infection, because one of those big tests was infection rates have to be suppressed, and the other big test is variants. If those cause a problem, then the tests will fail. The four tests have to be met for 21 June.”
On Thursday, government scientific advisers held urgent talks days before the next significant phase of unlocking that would allow people in England from different households to gather indoors for the first time in five months.
The prime minister said he was “cautiously optimistic” his roadmap out of lockdown would continue as planned, so long as India variant did not “take off in the way some people fear”.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the 21 June lockdown lifting could be in doubt if the variant caused a rise in people being hospitalised.
“At the moment the hospitalisation rate doesn’t seem to be increasing yet, although if this becomes much more common we’ll almost certainly see some increase, so I think it’s certainly a concern,” he told the Today programme. “If the epidemic continues to increase, if the Indian variant of the epidemic continues to increase at the same rate as it has over recent weeks, we’re going to have a huge number of cases by June.”
He said the variant appeared to be spreading in unvaccinated younger people rather than older people, meaning the country could “weather it”, but added: “But if that increases cases in elderly and starts to increase hospitalisations, and puts pressure on the NHS again then I think step 4 would be in doubt.”