Wednesday, February 21

PM under pressure to reconsider plans to relax rules amid India variant threat

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Boris Johnson was under mounting pressure on Saturday to reconsider Monday’s relaxation of Covid rules in England because of the threat posed by the India variant. His own advisers and independent health experts raised fears that it could lead to a surge in hospital admissions, especially among young adults.

From Monday people will be able to meet in groups of up to 30 outdoors, while six people or two households will be permitted to meet indoors. Pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers indoors. Indoor entertainment such as museums, cinemas and children’s play areas can also open along with theatres, concert halls, conference centres and sports stadiums.

Overnight stays will be allowed. Weddings, receptions and other ceremonies will be able to take place among groups of up to 30. Unlimited numbers of people will be able to attend funerals.

But there are fears the new India variant could trigger a third wave, just as the “big bang” relaxation approaches. Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s taskforce on new and emerging viruses (Nervtag), said the relaxations would drive up the numbers infected with the India variant and that unvaccinated younger adults would be most at risk.

Indoor mixing will almost certainly increase transmission of the B.1.617.2 variant but at this stage nobody can be sure by how much, he said.

Hayward added that many people would end up in hospital if, as feared, the variant proved 40% more transmissible than previous variants, notably the Kent variant, which drove the lethal second wave over the winter. Modelling by the government’s own Sage committee of scientific advisers has already said the increase in transmissibility from the new variant could be as high as 50%.

A 20% increase in transmissibility is not a big problem; [but] a 40% increase would be a huge problem and could lead to a sizeable surge in hospitalisations. A big surge in hospitalisations would likely have knock-on consequences for routine health services and the backlog of care, Hayward warned.