Matt Hancock says Covid strategy on track, but Indian variant has given disease 'more legs'
Those planning to celebrate the next phase of England, Scotland and Wales’ roadmaps out of lockdown on Monday have been told to remain vigilant in the fight against coronavirus.
In what is being billed as the biggest return to normality so far this year, all three countries will allow residents to enjoy indoor dining at pubs and restaurants under the “rule of six” from tomorrow. They will also be able to meet indoors in private homes, as well as at cinemas, museums and other venues. Groups up to 30 will be able to meet outdoors in the new easing of restrictions too.
Scotland’s Prof Jason Leitch warned revellers to be “cautious and careful” when rules change, using the current outbreaks in Glasgow and Moray as examples of the virus not being over.
The country’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced last week both areas would have to remain in stricter level 3 restrictions due to spikes in Covid cases, including detection of the highly contagious Indian variant, while the rest of Scotland advanced to level 2.
After the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) concluded there is a “realistic possibility” the Indian variant is 50 per cent more transmissible than the deadly Kent variant, experts with the advisory body urged caution in the easing of rules.
“If we are following data not dates, it is surprising that the road map is going ahead without adjustment,” Sage’s Prof Susan Michie told the Sunday Times.
Ministers did however have some good news over the weekend, as Matt Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi revealed that 20,103,658 people across the UK have now had both doses of a Covid jab. “It is inspiring to see the incredible public response to our call to arms to get the jab,” vaccines minister Mr Zahawi said earlier.
Good morning and welcome to The Independent’s live blog tracking the latest on the coronavirus pandemic as Boris Johnson faces calls to delay England’s lifting of lockdown restrictions amid fears over the spread of the Indian variant.
Downing Street defends timing of India travel ban
Downing Street has defended its timing in blocking travel from India amid fears over the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant.
India was added to the UK’s “red” travel ban list on 23 April, despite the country having reported more than 100,000 cases a day at the start of that month.
Questioned on why the government did not move quicker to block travel from India, a government spokesperson maintained that No 10 had acted quickly.
“We took precautionary action to ban travel from India on 23 April, six days before this variant was put under investigation and two weeks before it was labelled as of concern,” the spokesperson told the BBC.
The further noted that “prior to India being placed on the red list in April anyone coming to the UK had to test negative and quarantine for 10 days”.
It comes as the Government faces growing calls to reconsider plans for an easing of lockdown restrictions on Monday, with a growing body of experts urging caution.
Experts urge caution in easing of Covid restrictions amid spread of Indian variant
A growing body of coronavirus experts have suggested that the Government should consider delaying its plans to ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions on Monday amid the spread of the Indian variant.
After the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) concluded there is a “realistic possibility” the Indian variant is 50% more transmissible than the deadly Kent variant, experts with the advisory body urged caution in the easing of rules.
“If we are following data not dates, it is surprising that the road map is going ahead without adjustment,” Sage’s Professor Susan Michie told the Sunday Times.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has also raised concerns about the easing of restrictions.
“It is a real worry that when further measures lift on 17 May, the majority of younger people, who are often highly socially mobile and could therefore be most at risk of a more infectious strain, are not yet vaccinated,” the BMA’s Dr Richard Jarvis told the BBC on Saturday.
On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted that the spread of the Indian variant could imperil plans for the final stage of lockdown easing in June. However, he insisted Monday’s easing of restrictions would go ahead as planned.
Covid inquiry panel must be fully independent, cross-party group says
A cross-party group of MPs has reportedly called on Boris Johnson to ensure that the panel of a public inquiry into Covid-19 is fully independent - and not “hand-picked” by the government.
The call came in a letter signed by around 25 members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, including the former Conservative health minister Dan Poulter, The Guardian has reported.
According to the newspaper, the letter warns the prime minister that it will be “important for the inquiry to be fully independent, command the confidence of the public and the support of parliament and all four nations of the UK”.
“We therefore urge you to ensure the chair and panel of the inquiry are decided on a cross-party basis and in consultation with the devolved administrations, rather than being hand-picked by the UK government,” it states.
The cross-party body says a formal committee with representatives from each of the Westminster political parties and four nations of the UK should “be formed to provide a forum for discussion on the inquiry and avoid any accusations of political bias”.
Indoor pubs and restaurants set to reopen in Wales
For the first time in more than five months, residents across Wales will be able to dine and drink in pubs and restaurants starting Monday.
Entertainment venues, including cinemas, as well as tourist accommodation will also be able to open as part of an easing of coronavirus rules.
The new rules represent a major lifting of coronavirus restrictions since Wales first went into its lockdown on 20 December.
Buying an alcohol drink inside pubs, bars and residents, however, has not been allowed since 4 December.
As part of the easing of restrictions, up to 30 people will be able to take part in organised indoor events, while up to 50 people will be able to gather in organised outdoor events.
With the new lifting of rules, Wales will move into alert level 2.
First Minister Mark Drakeford has said that the easing of restrictions can move forward given low numbers of coronavirus cases in Wales, along with high vaccination rates.
Hancock says government will push forward with easing of rules, despite Indian variant fears
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has maintained that the Government will push forward with England’s lifting of coronavirus restrictions on Monday, despite fears over the spread of the Indian variant.
Speaking on Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Mr Hancock acknowledged concerns from health experts over the lifting of restrictions, including the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ warnings after concluding there is a “realistic possibility” the Indian variant is 50% more transmissible than the deadly Kent variant.
However, he said that while the government would be “cautious” and “careful” in its lifting of coronavirus restrictions, it would push forward with a major easing of rules on Monday.
“Our strategy remains to take a cautious and irreversible approach [and] to always ensure that we’re looking at the data all the way through and crucially to use the vaccine to get out of this pandemic,” he said.
At this point, he said that the data on the Indian variant, which he said has prompted a total of at least 1,300 cases in the UK, suggests that the government’s road map to lifting restrictions can remain “on track”.
However, he acknowledged that the rise of the variant could impact the UK’s plans for a final stage in the lifting of restrictions in June.
‘High degree of confidence’ vaccines work against Indian variant
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the government has a “high degree of confidence” that vaccines will work against the Indian variant.
Health secretary defends timing of India travel ban
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has defended the Government’s timing in blocking travel from India amid fears over the spread of the Indian variant of coronavirus.
Dismissing concerns that the Government added India to the its “red” travel ban list too late, Mr Hancock insisted on Sophy Ridge on Sunday that No 10’s response was quick.
“It’s frankly completely wrong and it misrepresents...the evidence on which you can take these decisions,” he said.
The health minister maintained that the Government added India to its red list even before the variant was “notified as a variant under investigation”.
“We have some of the strongest border measures in the world ,” he said.
He also dismissed questions around whether India was not added to the “red” list sooner to allow a planned trip for trade talks to move forward.
“We take these decisions based on the evidence,” he said.
Localised lockdowns not ruled out amid rise in Indian variant, Hancock says
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said ministers cannot rule out a return to regional restrictions if the Indian variant creates localised surges in coronavirus cases.
Speaking on Sophy Ridge on Sunday, the health secretary said local lockdowns were a decision the government “might have to take...if it’s necessary to protect people”.
Be ‘cautious, careful and vigilant’ when restrictions lift on Monday, says health secretary
Hancock skirts question on whether timing of India travel ban was linked to trade trip
Hancock defended the timing of when the Government put India on the travel “red list” on Sunday, but sidestepped questions on whether the decision was linked to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s planned - and then postponed - trip to the country.
The Health Secretary told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “This variant was notified as a variant under investigation after we’d already put India on the red list.”
“The decision to put India on the red list was taken because of the high positivity rate of people coming from India and looking at the epi-curve in India,” he said.
“When we put Pakistan on the red list at the start of April that’s because the proportion of people testing positive coming in from Pakistan was three times higher the proportion coming from India, and it was only after we put India on the red list that this variant went under investigation, and then earlier this month it became a variant of concern,” the health secretary asserted.
Asked about the impact of Mr Johnson’s planned trip to India in late April in a bid to assist trade talks, Mr Hancock replied: “We take these decisions based on the evidence.”
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