Rapid spread of 'more transmissible' Delta variant throws England’s re-opening into doubt

The Delta variant of Covid-19 has caused a rise in cases in Britain.
The Delta variant of Covid-19 has caused a rise in cases in Britain.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hopes of ending England’s coronavirus lockdown hung in the balance on Friday (June 11) as data showed a further rise in cases of the rapidly spreading Delta variant.

Mr Johnson is due to announce on Monday whether the planned lifting of restrictions, which would see an end to limits on social contact, can go ahead on time.

But the rapid spread of the Delta variant, officially a "variant of concern", has thrown those plans into jeopardy, prompting speculation that the June 21 date will be pushed back, or that some restrictions will remain.

"We have to be really careful. We had a very big opening on the 17th of May where people could meet friends indoors, in a restaurant, in a pub, and socialise indoors as well," Covid-19 vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Times Radio.

"And I think it's important that we look at the data very carefully over this weekend and then share it with the nation."

Total British cases of the Delta variant, first identified in India, have jumped by 29,892 to 42,323, Public Health England said on Friday, adding the variant currently accounted for over 90 per cent of new Covid-19 cases.

The figure was a big jump on the 12,431 cases of Delta reported last week, although it was not directly comparable as new genotyping tests were used this week, meaning that cases of the variant can now be confirmed within 48 hours.

New research from Public Health England "suggests that the Delta variant is associated with an approximately 60 per cent increased risk of household transmission" compared with the Alpha variant identified in Kent, south-east England.

The Alpha variant caused a surge in Covid-19 cases in January, leading to a three-month lockdown as hospitals were stretched to near-capacity.

Some scientists have urged a delay to restrictions being eased so more people can receive a second vaccine dose.

A widely watched prevalence survey showed that the number of people with Covid-19 was estimated to have risen in the week to June 5, though not as sharply as the week before.

Mr Johnson has said that an increase in cases was always expected after the most recent stage of lockdown easing in May, but the key to whether Step 4 can proceed on June 21 will be the extent to which Britain’s vaccine rollout has broken the link between cases and deaths.

Britain’s total Covid-19 death toll is over 127,000 but the number of daily deaths have fallen following a third national lockdown and a rapid vaccine rollout. More than three-quarters of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

However, the number of patients in hospital remains low, at just over 1,000 on Thursday, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said most inpatients have not had any vaccine.

The government said this suggested the vaccination programme is mitigating the impact of the Delta variant, urging the public to get both jabs.

Ms Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said that "two doses provide significantly more protection" against the Delta variant than one.

Britain has reported 127,867 deaths from the virus, the worst toll in Europe.