June 21 hangs 'in the balance', warns Professor Neil Ferguson

June 21 hangs ‘in the balance’: Professor Lockdown warns ‘dominant’ Indian variant will bring ‘small third wave’ but next two or three weeks will be ‘critical’ in deciding whether to unlock step four on roadmap

  • Professor Neil Ferguson warned more time was needed to determine whether June 21 opening could happen
  • Daily cases passed 3,000 for the first time in a month, up 18 per cent on daily cases last Wednesday
  • Though increasing cases are usually followed by deaths, officials hope the jabs roll-out will break that link 

Full reopening on June 21 hangs ‘in the balance’ due to the new Indian variant, one of the government’s top scientific advisers warned today. 

Professor Neil Ferguson warned the now ‘dominant’ strain would bring a ‘small third wave’ but the next two or three weeks would be ‘critical’ in deciding whether it was safe to move to step four on the government’s roadmap. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’re still working to assess exactly how much more transmissible it is but it has gone from being the a small minority to a majority variant and that’s clearly of concern.

‘We know that it partially evades the immunity generated by vaccines, thankfully if people have had two doses there’s still a large amount of immunity remaining but it’s not quite as much as before.

‘Step four is rather in the balance, the data collected in the next two or three weeks will be critical.’

Professor Ferguson said it was promising that infection levels were still low despite the new variant, with the latest ONS survey suggesting one in a thousand people in England are Covid positive, with the figure slightly higher in Scotland. 

He added: ‘The key issue on whether we can go forward is will the surge caused by the Indian variant – and we do think there will be a surge – be more than has been already planned in to the relaxation measures.

‘It was always expected that relaxation would lead to a surge in infections and to some extent a small third wave of transmission, that’s inevitable if you allow contact rates in the population to go up, even despite immunity.

‘It’s just we can’t cope with that being too large. So in the next two or three weeks will be able to come to a firm assessment of whether we can go forward.’  

Daily infections (3,180) spiked by 18 per cent compared to last Wednesday’s figure, reaching their highest level since April 12 (3,568). But deaths remained in single figures, with nine fatalities today up slightly on the three posted last Wednesday


Professor Neil Ferguson (left) today warned the Indian variant would bring a ‘small third wave’ but the next two or three weeks would be ‘critical’ in deciding whether it was safe to move to step four on the government’s roadmap. Pictured right: Surge testing yesterday in North Tyneside 

Britain’s mammoth vaccine drive continued at full steam ahead, with 387,987 top-up jabs dished out across the country yesterday. It takes the UK’s number of fully vaccinated adults to more than 23.6million

It comes as NHS bosses said the next seven days would be ‘crucial’ in assessing whether Covid jabs work, with all eyes on hospitalisation data as daily cases yesterday passed 3,000 for the first time in a month.

Infections rose by 18 per cent yesterday compared to last Wednesday, while hospital admissions rose 11 per cent compared with the previous seven days, according to official figures. 

Though increasing cases are usually followed by rises in hospitalisations and deaths, officials are hoping that the jabs roll-out will break that link after just nine deaths were recorded on Wednesday. 

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents health service trusts, said that hospitals in Indian variant hotspots in England were seeing cases rise steadily. But they were not increasing ‘at an alarming rate’, as he said: ‘The next seven days will be crucial, and trusts will be monitoring the data closely’.

He added that hospital admissions appeared to be of patients who had not been vaccinated, explaining: ‘This hammers home just how important it is to have a vaccination’.  

Britain’s mammoth vaccine drive continued at full steam ahead, with 387,987 top-up jabs dished out across the country – taking the UK’s number of fully vaccinated adults to more than 23.6 million. 

Another 186,147 first doses were also administered, with 38.4 million adults – or 72.9 per cent – having had at least one jab. England’s roll-out was today expanded to 30 and 31-year-olds. 

Observing the rise in cases, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ because of his role in the Government’s handling of the pandemic – said the increase had been anticipated.

Though he suggested that restrictions could be extended beyond June 21, he also reassured that the country’s jabs roll-out meant the UK is in a ‘much better place’ than during the second wave in December.

The professor also suggested the country could cope if the Indian variant was proven to only be 20 to 30 per cent more transmissible – which Sage scientists have argued is feasible. 

Yesterday he said: ‘We always expected to see case numbers rise as we relax and that’s sort of built into the plan. We can cope with that. It’s just if they’re rising too quickly, then that would be a problem.  

‘It’s not about how cases rise, it’s about how quickly they’re rising. And in particular, are we seeing evidence of a rapid rise in hospitalisations? If we start seeing, for instance, case numbers doubling every ten to 14 days and hospitalisations following the same track, that would be of concern.’   

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics yesterday revealed more than three quarters of adults in England would have tested positive for antibodies against coronavirus in the week beginning May 3. Antibodies can be prompted by prior infection or by vaccination. 

But experts said the levels did not indicate the country had herd immunity to Covid, with children still unvaccinated, and new and more transmissible variants cropping up.

The ONS estimated 75.9 per cent of adults in England would have tested positive for antibodies in the week beginning May 3, 76.6 per cent in Wales, 68.6 per cent in Scotland and 75 per cent in Northern Ireland. 

In other Covid developments: 

  • Dominic Cummings branded the PM ‘unfit for the job’ in an epic seven-hour evidence session with MPs;
  • He condemned the Government’s ‘disastrous’ coronavirus response and said thousands died needlessly;
  • Former No10 aide called Matt Hancock a serial liar who should have been sacked for ‘criminal behaviour’  
  • Three out of four people in England now have antibodies against Covid, a major surveillance study revealed; 
  • Covid deaths in second wave were up to five times higher in Bangladeshi Brits than white adults in England;
  • Britons going to France will have to quarantine for seven days and provide negative test due to variant fears.

Professor Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose modelling was instrumental in persuading the Government to bring in the first lockdown, this morning scientists had become increasingly concerned in the week leading up to March 13 2020 about the lack of a clear plan, and 20,000 to 30,000 lives could have been saved with earlier action.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), of which he was part, determined that a policy of pursuing herd immunity would lead to a vast number of deaths, he said a key meeting was held with the NHS on March 1 ‘which finalised estimates around health impacts, so the week after that really.’

Prof Ferguson said he ‘wasn’t privy to what officials were thinking within government’, but added: ‘I would say from the scientific side there was increasing concern that week leading up to the 13 of March about the lack of clear, let’s say, (a) resolved plan of what would happen in the next few days in terms of implementing social distancing.’

Asked how influential Sage was in changing the policy from one of herd immunity to one of lockdown, he said: ‘I think the key issue… it’s multiple factors, partly the modelling, which had been around for a couple of weeks but became firmer, particularly as we saw data coming in from the UK, and unfortunately I think one of the biggest lessons to learn in such circumstances is we really need good surveillance within the country at a much earlier point than we actually had it back in March last year.

‘As we saw the data build up, and it was matching the modelling, even worse than the modelling, let’s say it focused minds’.

He then said locking down a week earlier would have saved 20,000 to 30,000 lives ‘and I think that’s unarguable. I mean the epidemic was doubling every three to four days in weeks 13th to 23rd of March, and so had we moved the interventions back a week we would have curtailed that and saved many lives’.   

Under-21s may be more likely to catch the Indian Covid variant, Professor Lockdown warns 

Under-21s may be more likely to catch the Indian Covid variant, one of the Government’s top scientific advisers warned today.

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson said there was a ‘hint’ in the data that younger people are more vulnerable to getting infected with the mutant strain.

The SAGE epidemiologist, who offered no evidence to back his claim, claimed it was ‘impossible’ to tell whether it was a biological effect of the virus evolving. He admitted it was possible the figures were skewed by the ‘seeding of infection’ in schools and colleges.

But another scientist discussing the threat of the Indian variant said reports of it spreading quicker in the young should be taken ‘seriously because that’s the first sign that you have a problem’.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at Cambridge University, said: ‘Often if you wait too long for the right data it’s too late.’ He spoke alongside Professor Lockdown at a German media briefing today. 

Discussing the threat of the Indian variant to hopes of returning to normality next month, Professor Ferguson said said there was signs it was affecting children more than other strains.

He told a German briefing for science journalists: ‘There’s a hint in the data that under-21s are slightly more likely to be infected with this variant compared with other variants in recent weeks in the UK.

‘Whether it reflects a change in the biology or reflects what’s called founder effects and the context — the people who came into the country with the virus and then seeding of infection in certain schools and colleges — that’s impossible to resolve at the moment.’

But Professor Ferguson provided no figures to back up his claim and stressed there was no suggestion it causes more severe illness in youngsters.

Addressing the same topic, Professor Gupta said: ‘I do think we should take these reports [of it spreading more quickly in the young] seriously because that’s the first sign that you have a problem.

‘Often if you wait too long for the right data it’s too late. Hopefully the countries where they’re seeing this will be studying it in a kind of rigorous way so that we can get that information.’

Government advisers sounded the alarm about the Indian variant last month before it became the UK’s dominant strain, saying it may be up to 50 per cent more infectious than the Kent variant.

But scientists have since offered more optimism, believing the true figure to be around half of the initial estimate. Rigorous analysis has also shown vaccines still work against the strain.

Hospitalisations and deaths are bound to creep up as restrictions are eased – but jabs should stop them rising at the same speed as positive tests because the mammoth inoculation drive has broken the once impenetrable link between infection and serious illness.

Admissions have crept up over the past month in Bolton, the UK’s current Covid hotspot where the Indian strain is running rife. But experts say the figures are promising because they are lower than predicted, sparking hopes the town ‘may not see such a dramatic surge in hospitalisations’.  

Discussing the threat of the Indian variant to hopes of returning to normality next month, Professor Ferguson said it all depended on how much easier the variant spread.

He told a German briefing for science journalists: ‘It’s a matter of degree. If you hypothesise a situation where the virus is 60 per cent more transmissible then you could see a third wave the size we have just come out of – but if it’s 20 to 30 per cent it will be much lower.

‘We can cope with a certain level of increased transmissibility and still continue with the roadmap but if it’s higher than that we have to reconsider.

‘So the road map the UK is adopting with the context of a high level of vaccine coverage of gradually reopening is robust to a certain level of increase in transmissibility of the virus, and a certain limited level of immune escape of evading the vaccines, but only a certain amount.’

But Professor Ferguson added: ‘If it goes beyond those levels, then we need to reconsider the rate of reopening and maybe slow the next step.

‘I think we’re continuing to evaluate data. I think it’s actually too early to say whether we will be able to go ahead with what was planned in the UK in mid June and the next step or whether the fourth stage of relaxation will need to be postponed or indeed, in the worst case, measures need to be tightened up.

‘We’re getting more and more data every week, but we hope to be in a position to be more definitive about these answers in the next two to three weeks.’

When asked about whether the variant was more dangerous for children, Professor Ferguson said there was signs it was affecting children more than other strains.

He said: ‘There’s a hint in the data that under-21s are slightly more likely to be infected with this variant compared with other variants in recent weeks in the UK.

‘Whether it reflects a change in the biology or reflects what’s called founder effects and the context – the people who came into the country with the virus and then seeding of infection in certain schools and colleges – that’s impossible to resolve at the moment.’

But Professor Ferguson provided no figures to back up his claim and stressed there was no suggestion it causes more severe illness in youngsters.

Addressing the same topic, Professor Gupta said: ‘I do think we should take these reports [of it spreading more quickly in the young] seriously because that’s the first sign that you have a problem.

‘Often if you wait too long for the right data it’s too late. Hopefully the countries where they’re seeing this will be studying it in a kind of rigorous way so that we can get that information.’

NHS figures showed occupancy at Bolton’s major NHS trust fell yesterday, despite the rapid spread of the Indian variant.

Some 41 beds were taken up by infected patients at the Royal Bolton Hospital yesterday, down from 44 the day before, a Health Service Journal reporter tweeted.

Experts told MailOnline the figures show the virus is clearly not spiralling rapidly despite occupancy having tripled since the start of May – when just 13 Covid patients were being treated.

Covid hospitalisations may not be spiralling out of control in Bolton, according to official NHS figures that show occupancy at the town’s major NHS trust fell yesterday despite the rapid spread of the Indian variant

The infections heat map from DHSC dashboard for Bolton shows in January the age rates increased pretty much across all age groups at the same time though in September there was a gradual increase from the younger to older age groups. ‘This heat map shows the continuing lower rate in older age groups compared to previous waves

Infections are currently relatively low among people aged 60 and over, most of whom will have been vaccinated, in Bolton. Just 61.5 per 100,000 people in the age range are currently infected with Covid — seven times lower than the infection rate in the general population of the town (567.9)

Protection is similar across the different countries within the UK and in different regions within England, the report shows. The highest figure was in Wales, where 76.6 per cent of people were positive for antibodies, and the lowest was in Scotland with 68.6 per cent

Test results show that antibody levels are highest in the older age groups, with almost total coverage in the elderly, with slightly lower levels in the middle-aged groups who were later to get the vaccines, and significantly lower in young adults who have not yet been mass vaccinated

Super mutant coronavirus variants may emerge, expert warns 

Coronavirus is going to do ‘weird’ things going forward, and ‘super mutant viruses’ may emerge, an expert has warned.

Professor Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that while this would not necessarily be a bad thing, the virus would try to become more efficient at transmission as more people are protected.

He added that coronavirus is unpredictable and we should not be overconfident at any stage.

Asked about how to prepare for future variants, Prof Gupta told a press briefing: ‘I think that we have good vaccines, now we need to keep the pressure on vaccine designers, manufacturers to adapt vaccines.’

He added: ‘Secondly, the virus is going to do some weird things. I mean, this is just the beginning.

‘I think it’s going to recombine, you’re going to get super mutant viruses, I believe.

‘But that’s not not necessarily a terrible thing, but the virus is going to do very unexpected things because the amount of pressure on it is going to be severe, so it will adapt.

‘We know that people still get chronic infections and that’s how this all happens in general.

‘It’s hard to say what is going to happen, but the virus is going to find ways of becoming more infectious – you can see that already, when it’s under pressure it will try and be more efficient in transmission so that it can achieve the job with fewer virus particles.’

Referring to some of the mutations seen in the variant first detected in India, the expert said they are ‘just the beginning’ and that there will be further changes to the virus, not only for antibody escape but to increase transmissibility.

 

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, said hospitalisations are currently lower than they would have been predicted based on case numbers a fortnight ago and if ‘this pattern continues … we may not see such a dramatic surge in hospitalisations’.

He said: ‘It’s early days but the number of hospitalisations in Bolton is lower than one would have predicted from the number of cases being reported over the past couple of weeks.

‘Part of the reason for this is that cases, so far at least, are predominantly in in the under 50s who are rather less likely to be admitted to hospital.

‘So it looks like in Bolton at least older people are not catching Covid with as great a frequency as younger people because of the vaccine. So because [there are] fewer older people we see fewer hospitalisations.

‘There will also be an effect of the vaccine on reducing the need for hospitalisation in people who do get an infection whatever their age, but it is difficult to disentangle this from age at present.’ He added that scientists will ‘know more in a couple of weeks’.

And Professor David Livermore, a medical microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline the stable hospitalisation rate in Bolton bodes well for the future.

He said: ‘Nationally – and Bolton doesn’t look exceptional – more than 70 per cent of people now have some immunity, owing to vaccination or to prior infection.

‘This means it’ll be impossible for the virus to get serious traction, as it did previously, especially given that the vaccine is effective against the Indian variant.

‘What I think will happen is little sputtering clusters largely in unvaccinated households but [there will be] no major expansion this time.’ 

It comes as data from a major Government surveillance study today revealed three out of four people in England now have antibodies against Covid. 

Updated figures from the Office for National Statistics showed 76 per cent of adults had signs of immunity either from past infection or inoculation, in the week ending May 3.

The number – an estimate based on random blood testing of around 20,000 adults – shows the continuous rise of population protection, which top scientists and ministers believe will squash any third outbreak and slash the numbers of people getting severe Covid and dying in future.

Antibodies, which are virus-specific immune substances made to block infections, are only detected in people who have had Covid in the past or who have had a vaccine – this is now a majority of people in the UK.

A total of 38.2 million people in Britain have had at least one dose and 23.2 million have been fully vaccinated with both, Government figures show. 

Coverage with antibodies is higher in older people, who were the first to get jabs, with 92 per cent or more of over-65s testing positive for immunity in the ONS survey. It is highest in over-80s, among whom 98 per cent of people have some degree of protection from the virus.

In most cases the antibodies are expected to stop people from getting seriously ill or dying if they catch the coronavirus. In some people they will also completely prevent infection and stop them spreading the illness.

Protection is similar across the different countries within the UK and in different regions within England, the report shows, although vaccine uptake is lower than average in London – but antibody levels are still high, showing more people have been infected.

The report comes as the NHS opened up its vaccine programme to 30 and 31-year-olds with vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi promising the immunisation drive was heading for a ‘big’ fortnight.  

He told MPs his ‘absolute focus’ was that the campaign continued at pace because ‘the faster we can move the vaccination programme, the sooner we can end those restrictions’.

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