Ministers are under growing pressure to deploy “surge vaccinations” in Covid hotspots, with some local authorities pushing to extend the offer of jabs to over-18s to stop the spread of a coronavirus variant.
Boris Johnson said he was anxious about the spread of the variant first detected in India, as cases more than doubled in a week.
Government scientific advisers held urgent talks with just days until the next significant phase of social unlocking that would allow people in England from different households to gather indoors again 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 the variant found in India, B1.617.2, did not “take off in the way some people fear”.
Infection cases jumped from 520 to 1,313 in a week, according to Public Health England (PHE), which said it was “actively monitoring the impact of this variant and its severity”.
Data from the Covid-19 genomics UK consortium database revealed that of all the coronavirus genomes sequenced in the past 28 days, more than 8% relate to the India variant of concern.
According to further documents released by PHE, 31.9% of cases of the India variant B.1.617.2 were in London as of 12 May, 25.4% of cases were in the north-west of England and 12.1% of cases were in the east of England. In London 26.5% of cases were among travellers while in the north-west this figure was just 7.5%.
Data in the report also suggests the India variant of concern may be growing faster than the Kent variant (B.1.1.7) which currently dominates in the UK.
“Compared to lineage B.1.1.7, the growth rate for B.1.617.2 displays an increased growth rate,” the document states.
There are also hotspots of the variant. According to Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Covid-19 genomic surveillance data – which excludes data from recent travellers and surge testing specimens – more than 55% of coronavirus genome sequences in Bolton and Blackburn and Darwen related to this variant of concern on average over the two-week period around 24 April.
While decisions about the priority list for jabs are made by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), Johnson faced calls from Labour to announce a national response to the surge of the variant.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said surge vaccination should be considered as part of the method to stem the spread of cases, and pressed the government to move with speed.
On Thursday night multiple sources suggested the government was poised to approve a targeted vaccine programme for the over-16s in the worst affected wards in Bolton and Blackburn.
“This might be all adults in multi-generational households; all adults from 16 upwards in a particular geography where there is high enduring transmission, low compliance/engagement with test/trace/isolation and lower vaccine uptake in the existing Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority groups; or all adults in a broader geography,” said one public health source.
A statement from the Department of Health and Social Care on Thursday night said that ministers were considering bringing people’s second doses forward.
The statement also warned: “We cannot rule out re-imposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine.”
There was confusion earlier on Thursday when Blackburn with Darwen council said that all over-18s living in the district would be able to book a vaccine from next week – the age level being well below the official NHS England cut-off of 38.
The council then made a U-turn, saying its local rollout would continue in line with the national one.
But a senior source in Blackburn said vaccines would be available to all adults in the three worst-affected wards, with 3,000 extra doses of the Moderna vaccine secured by the local health team.
Dominic Harrison, the council’s director of public health, also said that given the “increased transmissibility” of the B1.617.2 variant, the government should “maintain some controls” next Monday.
It follows a move in Moray, Scotland, where vaccines have been available for over-18s since the start of the week to tackle rising Covid cases.
In Greater Manchester, senior sources said the government was close to allowing surge vaccinations among younger age groups in Bolton. The lead director for public health in Greater Manchester has written to the JCVI asking permission to deviate from the national age lower age limit and requesting increased vaccine supplies.
Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, challenged Johnson for refusing to rule out a return to local lockdowns. He said he would have serious reservations about such a plan, and asked: “Surely surge vaccinations for people of all ages is the best answer?”
Multiple Tory MPs, including Jake Berry, who represents Darwen in the Commons, also said they supported the move to let councils offer vaccines to younger people if they felt it would help crack down on rising Covid cases and avoid a return to local lockdowns.
Berry said “areas will be guided by the correct scientific advice” and that while the India variant cases in his constituency were “concerning” he was glad Blackburn with Darwen had taken rapid action to make sure “we can continue to bear down on coronavirus cases”.
Mark Harper, chair of the Covid Recovery Group, said: “If opening up vaccination to all over-18s in Covid hotspot areas would significantly reduce transmission as well, then this may be something that the JCVI should consider.”
Steve Baker, deputy chair of the same group, also signalled frustration with any retreat back to tougher restrictions or slowdown in the promised pathway out of lockdown.
“We were told the roadmap was cautious, in spite of the overwhelmingly promising data on the benefits of the NHS vaccine rollout, precisely so it would be irreversible.”
Prof Andy Pollard, a member of the JCVI, urged calm and said many variants would emerge in the years ahead and would spread, even in vaccinated populations. He stressed that the key question was whether the infections were severe.
The PHE report suggests there have been four deaths as of 12 May within 28 days of a confirmed or probable case of the variant while there have been 13 instances thought to be potential reinfection cases. However the authors of the report say this is not surprising.
“This would be expected with any prevalent variant; comparative analyses have been initiated,” the document states.