Six areas to get surge testing after Indian variant cases increase 30% in two days

·3-min read
People queuing for Covid vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton as the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant could lead to the return of local lockdowns, ministers have acknowledged. Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford are the areas ministers are most concerned about. Picture date: Tuesday May 18, 2021.
Additional vaccination facilities are being set up in areas affected by the Indian coronavirus variant. (PA Images)

Surge testing and additional vaccinations are being rolled out in further six areas in England after cases of the India coronavirus variant were identified.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said the measures would be brought forward in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester and North Tyneside.

He told MPs: "What this means in practice is we’re putting in place more testing and more testing sites and on vaccinations we’re making more vaccinations available to everyone who’s eligible."

Hancock said the number of cases of the variant in the UK has now risen to 2,967, a rise of 28% in two days.

A series of new maps show how the Indian variant has spread across England in the past four weeks, with higher numbers seen in the Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford local council areas.

Watch: Hancock: Almost 3,000 cases of Indian variant in UK

BOLTON, ENGLAND - MAY 18: People queue for Covid-19 vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton where mass vaccinations are taking place to try and combat rising levels of the Indian coronavirus variant on May 18, 2021 in Bolton, England. Bolton joined the rest of England in resuming indoor dining yesterday, although the UK health secretary has warned that the government will consider a local lockdown in Bolton
People queue for COVID-19 vaccinations in Bolton. (Getty)

The sharp rise in cases of the India coronavirus variant in a number of areas has caused concern among ministers, with Boris Johnson warning on Friday the spread could derail plans to lift lockdown measures in England on 21 June.

Experts fear the variant may be up to 50% more transmissible than the Kent strain.

However, on Tuesday, the prime minister said that there was no "conclusive evidence" to suggest a need to deviate from the roadmap.

Professor Neil Ferguson – the Imperial College London scientist whose modelling convinced the government to impose the first national lockdown last spring – said there was a “glimmer of hope” that although the variant first identified in India appears to have a significant advantage over the Kent variant, the “magnitude” of that could be lower than initially thought.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday: “We’re trying to work out if the rapid growth we’ve seen in areas such as Bolton is going to be typical of what we could expect to see elsewhere, or if it is what’s called a 'founder effect' – which is often seen in these circumstances.

"There’s a glimmer of hope from the recent data that while this variant does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data so the curves are flattening a little."

But he stressed it will take “a little more time before we can be definitive about that".

Graham Medley, a professor of disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that while the variant was growing quickly in some places, "we haven't yet seen it take off and grow rapidly everywhere else".

"One of the key things we'll be looking for in the coming weeks will be: how far does it spread outside of those areas," he said.

People queuing for Covid vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton as the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant could lead to the return of local lockdowns, ministers have acknowledged. Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford are the areas ministers are most concerned about. Picture date: Tuesday May 18, 2021. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)
The variant could delay next month's planned lockdown easing. (Getty)

On Wednesday, Johnson added the latest data indicates the jabs are working against all variants of the virus.

He told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions: “We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the House we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.”

A number 10 spokesman said later that Johnson had been referring to data on daily case rates as well as to studies published in the UK and elsewhere which showed “high levels of efficacy” for the vaccines against the virus.

He stressed however ministers would want to see more information before making decisions on the next steps toward lifting lockdown.

Watch: COVID-19: More than 70% of adults have now had a first coronavirus vaccine

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