A surge vaccination campaign could be targeted at areas seeing a rise in cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in India, Downing Street has hinted, as the prime minister admitted he was “anxious” about how fast cases were spreading in the UK.
While insisting that there was no reason yet to delay easing restrictions, Boris Johnson said the variant, which a scientist has estimated could be 60% more transmissible than the most dominant strain in the UK, “has been spreading” in Britain so government advisers are gathering today to “consider exactly what we need to do”.
Johnson said “we are ruling nothing out” and did not deny local lockdowns could return to clamp down on the variant spreading and threatening unlocking progress made by vaccines, which have so far been given to 35 million people.
“There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it,” Johnson told broadcasters in an interview on Thursday.
Earlier, Downing Street was asked if the government was considering surge vaccines – involving targeting the rollout of jabs in areas where variant cases are causing concern. The prime minister’s spokesman said: “We want to consider all options. We’re not going to rule anything out.”
India has been hit hard by the emergence of a variant there, seeing cases and deaths rise to record daily highs. It was placed on England’s travel “red list” last month, but ministers were accused of not acting fast enough to stop the import of the variant.
Labour has also called for hotel quarantine requirements to be widened to include more travellers in a bid to avoid more people carrying the variant into the country via indirect routes.
The India variant of concern – known as B.1.617.2 – is “circulating” in London and is “at least as transmissible” as the Kent variant that is now dominant across the UK, said Prof Paul Elliott, the director of the React programme at Imperial College London.
Prof Tom Wenseleers, at the University of Leuven in Belgium, who worked closely with UK scientists on the spread of the Kent variant, also said the Indian variant could be 60% more transmissible than the current most widespread one.
Quizzed on the government’s strategy for stopping the spread of the India variant on Thursday, Johnson said “there is a very wide range of scientific opinion about what could happen”.
He added: “We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do.”
Surge testing and contact tracing will continue in the areas where variants of concern are found, Johnson said, and vowed: “If we have to do other things, then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out.”
Earlier, the Foreign Office minister James Cleverly had told Sky News that any decisions to delay easing restrictions would be “driven by the data” on infection rates and hospitalisations in the run-up to the next phase of the reopening.
He said: “Scientists on Sage will make their assessments, they will report that to government, and we will make decisions based on the data and the evidence that they provide.
“The prime minister, the health secretary, have always been clear that the easing of restrictions which allow us to get back to normality will be done at a pace and in a way which is safe.”