Boris Johnson to hold 5pm Covid press conference amid growing concerns over Indian variant with No10 under fire for being ‘weeks too late’ on putting India on travel red list
- Prime Minister is due to appear in Downing Street ‘s new briefing room at 5pm
- No10 announced India was being added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ yesterday
- Accused of dithering and leaving UK ‘exposed’ to more cases of new variant
Boris Johnson will hold a press conference tonight amid growing concerns about the Indian coronavirus variant.
The Prime Minister is due to appear in Downing Street’s new briefing room at 5pm after coming under fire for taking too long to ban travel to India.
No10 only announced India was being added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ yesterday, and the measures won’t come into effect until 4am on Friday. Hundreds of people will arrive in Britain from India before then.
Labour slammed the Government for not banning arrivals immediately, despite the Indian variant being under investigation by UK officials for almost three weeks.
Sir Patrick Vallance’s predecessor admitted ministers were too slow to respond to the new strain, called B.1.617, claiming the ban was ‘taken a bit too late in truth’.
Some 103 cases of the variant have been identified in the UK so far, the vast majority of which were linked to international travel. The PM has had to cancel a visit to India next week.
It is feared B.1.617 spreads more easily than older strains and scientists say it has mutations which may help it evade vaccines.
But top experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’.
They questioned whether the strain is actually vaccine resistant or more transmissible than older versions, claiming the evidence was still murky.
Boris Johnson will hold a press conference tonight amid growing concerns about the Indian coronavirus variant
No10 only announced India was being added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ yesterday, and the measures won’t come into until 4am on Friday. Indian is suffering a devastating second wave
The Covid variants circulating in the UK: Matt Hancock revealed yesterday that 103 cases of the Indian variant had been picked up in Britain, but Public Health England’s site has not been updated. It still says there have been 77 infections
A health worker collects a swab from a policeman in Bhopal, the capital city of India’s Madhya Pradesh state
The variant was first identified internationally in October and detected in the UK on February 22.
Two key mutations set it apart from others – named E484Q and L452R – with both of them found on the ‘spike’ that the virus uses to latch onto human cells.
These are not thought to be key mutations of any of the other variants on Public Health England’s list, but have appeared in virus samples before.
Those alterations are thought to make the virus more transmissible, and lab studies suggest it can also escape antibodies – a key part of the body’s Covid immune response.
Real name: B.1.617
When and where was it discovered? The variant was first reported as being of concern by the Indian government in late March.
The first cases in India appear to date back to October 2020 and it was first detected in Britain in February.
What mutations does it have? It has 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China – but the two main ones are named E484Q and L452R.
Scientists suspect these two alterations can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
Should we be worried?
Because it’s a brand new variant with rare mutations, scientists are unsure how transmissible or vaccine-resistant it will be.
Experts can only draw on results from a small number of lab studies and the fact India suffered a deadly second wave following the variant’s emergence.
The UK currently classes it as a ‘Variant Under Investigation’, a tier below other troublesome strains including the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants.
Experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’, like the mutations found on the South African and Kent variants.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said the rise of the Indian variant had happened at the same time India suffered a third wave, which may explain its higher prevalence.
How deadly is it?
Again, scientists still don’t know for sure – but they are fairly certain it won’t be.
This is because Covid gets no evolutionary benefit by evolving to become more deadly.
The virus wants to spread as much as possible and so it needs people to be alive and interacting with others for as long as possible to achieve this.
And if other variants are anything to go by, the Indian strain should not be more lethal.
There is still no evidence to show dominant versions like the Kent and South African variants are more deadly than the original Covid strain.
How many people in the UK have been infected with it? Matt Hancock revealed there had been 103 cases so far.
But Public Health England’s latest report, published on April 15, says 77. These were detected in England and Scotland.
But because the mutations are rare and poorly understood, scientists aren’t sure to what degree they will change the way the virus behaves.
Sharon Peacock, the head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it was unclear whether the variant was behind India’s devastating second wave.
But she claimed there was enough concern to warrant slowing the number of cases coming into the UK.
‘This is an important step in controlling further introduction of this variant into the UK,’ she said.
‘The number of B.1.617 genomes detected in the UK has risen in the last three weeks.
‘Even though this is at or less than 1 per cent of the genomes sequenced in the UK overall, the upward trend in cases warrants action whilst ongoing uncertainties over the level of threat posed by this variant are evaluated.’
She said scientists were also unsure whether any of the mutations mean the variant can be transmitted more easily, is more deadly or can evade the effectiveness of vaccines or natural immunity.
Professor Peacock said more work was needed to determine whether the variant should move from being one under investigation, as at present, to a variant of concern.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the Government, said he was confident the jab is more transmissible than other strains based on spiralling case numbers in India.
He also admitted the ban on travel from the country had come too late.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘These decisions are almost inevitably taken a bit too late, in truth, but what’s absolutely clear is that this variant is more transmissible in India.
‘You can see that it’s becoming the dominant variant, and the other concern about it is that it has a second change in the spike protein which may mean that it’s able to be a bit more effective at escaping an immune response, either a natural one or vaccine-induced one, so there’s good reasons for wanting to keep it out of the country if at all possible.
‘What we need to do is get the population vaccinated and also get booster vaccines prepared that will be able to deal with these new variants – so buying time … against these new variants is really important.’
Labour also slammed No10 for dithering, with Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symond telling LBC: ‘As Labour has warned for months, failing to introduce strong protections at the border has left us exposed to mutations of the virus, which has now lead to dangerous outbreaks in the UK.
‘It is not good enough to try and shut the door after the horse has bolted, by adding countries onto a red list when it is too late. What’s needed is an urgent comprehensive hotel quarantine system.’
Meanwhile Labour chairwoman, Yvette Cooper, said the variant had been under investigation for almost three weeks.
She told The Times: ‘The India variant has been under investigation for almost three weeks and other neighbouring countries with lower rates of infection were added to the red list ten days ago.’
Yesterday Matt Hancock told MPs that the government had made the ‘difficult’ decision to place India in the highest level of restrictions from 4am on Friday.
Anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen will be banned from entering the country if they have been in India in the previous 10 days.
British nationals coming from India will need to isolate for 10 days in a quarantine hotel.
Mr Hancock claimed the ‘vast majority’ of cases in the UK were linked to international travel. He said: ‘After studying the data and on a precautionary basis we have made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list.’
Figures show there are now more than 200,000 confirmed Covid cases a day in India.
Yesterday, a joint statement from the British and Indian government said Boris Johnson’s trip – already scaled back – will not go ahead next week ‘in light of the current situation’.
Mr Hancock said the latest move means ‘anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen cannot enter the UK if they’ve been in India in the previous 10 days’.
‘UK and Irish residents and British citizens who have been in India in the past 10 days before their arrival will need to complete hotel quarantine for 10 days from the time of arrival.’
He added: ‘India is a country I know well and love. Between our two countries we have ties of friendship and family. I understand the impact of this decision but I hope the House will concur that we must act.’
The news comes after an expert warned the Indian coronavirus variant could ‘pose a threat’ to Mr Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.
Professor Danny Altmann, an Imperial College London immunologist, said there were vaccinated vulnerable Britons who could ‘still be caught out by variants like this’.
PHE currently lists it as a ‘variant under investigation’, a tier below other troublesome strains including the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants.
But Professor Altmann said he expects, ‘from everything I’ve seen is that it will become a variant of concern.’
SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward backed calls for India to be put on the ‘red list’ to buy experts time to study the variant in more detail.
The infectious disease expert urged the Government to ‘err on the side of caution and act sooner rather than later’.
But top experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’.=
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Monday: ‘This variant has a couple of mutations that are among those that we think are important that should be watched carefully.
‘But they’re actually probably not at the very kind of top tier of mutations, for example in the B.1.1.7 – or Kent variant – or the South African variant, that generate the most concern.’
Dr Barnett said the rise of the Indian variant had happened at the same time India suffered a third wave, which may explain its higher prevalence.
Hundreds set to fly in before ban begins
Hundreds of people will arrive in Britain from India this week before the ‘red list’ travel restrictions come into effect on Friday.
Seven flights from the country arrived at Heathrow airport yesterday, with at least 16 scheduled to land before the tighter rules come into place.
Flights run by BA, Virgin Atlantic and Air India are due from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
Before Friday, travellers from India will have to provide a negative coronavirus test in the three days before flying and then quarantine at home in the UK for ten days. Arrivals can use public transport to travel to their quarantine destination.
From Friday, only British or Irish nationals, or those with UK residence rights, can enter on flights from India. They will have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days.
Earlier this year, amid concerns about the Kent variant, India limited flights between the countries to 30 a week, compared with almost 70 previously.
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