The UK’s vaccines minister said on Friday that the jab rollout programme may be adapted to deal with the growing spread of a new Covid-19 variant in some parts of the country.
Ministers are concerned that infections from the variant known as B. 1.617.2, which originated in India, are spreading rapidly in some communities. There is no evidence, however, that it is proving vaccine resistant.
In the week to May 13, infections caused by the strain more than doubled from 520 to 1,313. The government has introduced surge testing to Bolton, Birmingham, Worcestershire and parts of London. Extra vaccination clinics are also being opened in the north-west.
Nadhim Zahawi, vaccines minister, said that “flex” would be required to ensure the new variant does not impact the government’s plans for easing lockdown restrictions.
“The clinicians will look at all of this to see how we can flex the vaccination programme to make it as effective as possible to deal with this surge in this variant,” he told Sky News.
Zahawi said some of the options may include vaccinating younger people, jabbing multigenerational households or expediting the second doses, adding: “We look at all of that and will be guided by the clinicians as to what we do on that.”
The minister added that the road map for unlocking was presently unchanged because “at the moment we have no evidence that it [the variant] escapes the vaccines or is more severe in its impact on people”.
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, has called for the city’s young people to be vaccinated sooner to avoid a need for further local lockdowns. “It makes sense to put more vaccine into areas where case rates are highest,” he told the BBC.
Concerns about the new variant prompted Wales to decide against relaxing social distancing rules outside of households from Monday. Mark Drakeford, first minister, said: “Largely because of the Indian variant, we’re not going to change the rules about people more generally. We expect the two-metre social distance to be sustained.”
The increase in infections will not change the government’s plans for unlocking major parts of the economy in England on Monday.
Indoor dining at pubs and restaurants will be allowed from Monday, along with indoor socialising within the rule of six. Up to 30 people will also be allowed to gather outside, plus galleries, museums, theatres and cinemas will reopen.
But some scientists have raised concerns about whether the June 21 easing, when all measures are set to expire, can happen as planned.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that the B. 1.617.2 variant was likely to be present in all regions of the UK and cautioned that it may impact the timeline for easing restrictions.
“I think the big question is how many of [the] people who are getting the Indian variant will end up requiring hospitalisation,” he told the BBC. “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.”
Hunter added: “I think the step four is in doubt in June now, but we really need to see what impact it has on severe disease before we can really be certain.”