LONDON (AFP) - Britain is confident that existing vaccines will provide protection from a more transmissible coronavirus variant now spreading across India, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday (May 16).
England, Scotland and Wales are set to unlock parts of their economy on Monday, but further steps have been put in doubt by the B16172 strain.
Hancock told Sky News the government had a "high degree of confidence" that vaccines would stand up to the B16172 variant, following new early data from Oxford University. "That means that we can stay on course with our strategy of using the vaccine to deal with the pandemic," he said.
Britain, one of the countries the worst hit by in the world with over 127,000 deaths, has also seen a rapid deployment of vaccines with nearly 20 million people having been fully vaccinated. According to government data, the case numbers of the variant have risen from 520 to 1,313 this week.
In the face of the rising cases centred around the northern towns of Bolton and Blackburn, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Friday second doses of vaccines would be accelerated for over-50s and the clinically vulnerable.
Hancock said the "vast majority" of people in hospital in Bolton with the new variant had been eligible for vaccination but had not come forward.
He warned because of the high transmission of the B16172 variant, it could "spread like wildfire amongst the unvaccinated groups" and because of this the government "need to get as many people vaccinated as possible".
The health secretary defended the government from criticism that it was too slow to impose travel restrictions on India in the face of the new variant.
He said it was "completely wrong" to suggest the UK could have acted faster to designate India as a "red list" country, meaning arriving travellers would have to quarantine in hotels. India was placed under the strict travel restrictions in April before the variant was under investigation, he said.
He also rebuffed the suggestion the decision was influenced by a planned trip by Johnson in April to assist in post-Brexit trade talks. "We take these decisions based on the evidence," he said over the visit which was eventually scrapped because of surging Covid-19 cases in India.
Indoor hospitality and indoor entertainment such as cinemas, museums and sports venues are to open their doors in most parts of the UK for the first time in months on Monday. People and families will also be able to meet with some restrictions in private houses under the new measures and limited international travel will be permitted.
The government and experts have sounded a note of caution over plans to completely lift restrictions on June 21.
Hancock said if the B16172 variant was 50 per cent more transmissible than the so-called Kent or British strain that forced the UK into a January lockdown, "then we will have a problem".
"We're in a race between the vaccination programme and the virus, and this new variant has given the virus some extra legs in that race, but we have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome," Hancock said.