Guardian News and Media/ London
The government is acting “coolly” and “calmly” to tackle the coronavirus variant first found in India as social distancing measures are further eased on Monday, the Health Minister Edward Argar has said.
At a press conference on Friday, Boris Johnson said he would press ahead with allowing indoor gatherings of six people or two households in England from next week, though the final stage of lifting restrictions in June could face “serious disruption”.
His comments came amid warnings from scientists that the new variant of concern first detected in India, B.1.617.2, could lead to a “significant” surge in infections, and could be up to 50% more transmissible than the variant first detected in Kent.
“As Chris Whitty said on Friday, it’s possible (it could be more transmissible), but equally it could be much less more transmissible, if that makes sense,” Argar told BBC Breakfast yesterday.
“We don’t know how much more transmissible it is yet. All the evidence so far suggests there is no evidence of increased severity of illness or that it evades the vaccine. So, at the moment, on the basis of the evidence we are doing the right thing, coolly, calmly continuing with Monday, but keeping everything under review.”
Argar added that people should take personal responsibility when deciding whether or not to hug loved ones, when allowed to do so. “You have to take all the facts into consideration,” he said.“It’s about personal responsibility, it’s about making the right judgment call.”
Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, had warned on Friday that a more transmissible B.1.617.2 variant would mean “a really significant surge” in infections, as he predicted the variant could become the most dominant strain across the UK.
Yesterday, Prof Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee of Vaccines and Immunisation (JCVI), said coronavirus vaccines were “almost certainly less effective” at reducing transmission of the variant.
Harnden, who advises the government on vaccinations, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The vaccines may be less effective against mild disease but we don’t think they’re less effective against severe disease. But in combination with being less effective against mild disease, they’re almost certainly less effective against transmission.”
Argar said there had been a “minor increase” in people presenting at hospital with the virus, mainly among unvaccinated people aged between 35 and 65 in Bolton, where, alongside Blackburn with Darwen, the army will be deployed to help mass testing efforts.
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