Confidence growing over June 21 Covid restrictions relaxation

Coronavirus restrictions are almost certain to be lifted next month with signs that the growth in the Indian variant may be levelling off, according to a health expert.

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said yesterday that she was “increasingly confident” that the vaccines would work well against the variant.

Public Health England has estimated that the strain may already account for most cases across the country but that two doses of vaccine offer similar levels of protection against it as against the Kent variant. A single dose appears, however, to offer less protection against catching it than the Kent strain.

Boris Johnson is confident that all social distancing can end as planned on June 21 and is hoping that data on hospital admissions in variant hotspots will confirm early this week that the strain does not risk overwhelming the NHS.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, hailed a “huge day for vaccinations” with a total of 762,361 doses given on Saturday, the second highest on record. First doses were given to 205,410 people and a further 556,951 people received second doses, surpassing April 24 when 547,636 were administered. Overall, 72 per cent of adults have been vaccinated with 60 million doses.

How much more infectious the Indian variant is than the Kent strain will be crucial to hopes of ending restrictions as planned. Harries said “the jury is still out” but backed estimates by Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, that it was more likely to be between 20 per cent and 30 per cent more transmissible.

Asked about the prospects for ending all restrictions on June 21, she said: “It’s looking good if people are continuing to observe all of the safety signals.”

She said there was “a mixed picture across the country” and in the northwest the Indian strain is “starting to become the dominant strain” but that was not the case across the country.

She said cases had risen steeply but “they seem to be slightly levelling a little at the moment, but it’s still very early days”. Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told Times Radio that the variant’s spread meant “slight but nevertheless measurable slippage in the effectiveness of the vaccines”.

He said Britain was “effectively in a race with the vaccine programme against the virus”. “We know that we’re progressing well with the vaccine programme but I think there’s going to need to be an adjustment of some sort.”

Harries told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC 1 that only six people had been known to have died from the variant and “the vast majority of these are people who have not been vaccinated and also elderly”.

The variant is known to have resulted in 104 A&E visits, with 1.1 per cent of known cases requiring emergency treatment and 0.2 per cent of them dying.

There were 2,235 new confirmed cases announced yesterday, with the seven-day average up 11.3 per cent on the week before. There were five more deaths announced, with the seven-day average 43.2 per cent lower than the week before.

It was reported last night that ministers would step up discussions on the return to ordering drinks at the bar.

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