U.K. May ‘Flex’ Vaccine Program to Curb Spread of India Variant

The U.K. could speed up vaccinations in districts that have seen surges in Covid-19 infections linked to the highly transmissible India variant, in a bid to prevent the disease getting out of control again.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold a press conference at 5 p.m. Friday, with the focus expected to be on vaccinations and testing rather than imposing local lockdowns to contain outbreaks at this stage.

Cases of the B.1.617.2 strain -- the variant that originated in India -- have risen to 1,313 from 520 over the past week, according to Public Health England. While there is no evidence it is able to evade the vaccines, PHE assessed it is “at least as transmissible” as the so-called Kent variant that took hold in December, precipitating the U.K.’s third lockdown in January.

Johnson has vowed to proceed with easing the national lockdown in England from Monday, with people allowed to meet indoors in homes, pubs and restaurants. But the recent rise in infections could mean he is forced to delay plans to lift all legal limits on social contact on June 21.

The premier said Thursday he is “anxious” about the spread of the variant.

Tory Conflict

Any slowing of the lockdown easing “roadmap” would risk putting Johnson into conflict with members of his own Conservative Party, who have been agitating for a faster reopening amid a vaccination program that’s one of the most advanced in the world.

Surge testing is already being carried out in areas including Bolton, in northwest England, and parts of London. Local leaders in Greater Manchester and Lancashire have been calling for “surge vaccinations” to ensure younger people are protected.

The government has repeatedly pointed to guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, which prioritizes older age groups over the young. The national program is currently reaching people in their late 30s.

The Department for Health and Social Care said late Thursday ministers are considering bringing forward planned second vaccine doses for eligible groups.

Rapid Rollout

At present, the U.K. allows for up to 12 weeks between first and second doses. Almost 36 million people have had their first dose, of whom almost 19 million have had a second dose. That leaves 17 million people whose second doses could be brought forward if the government decides to change policy.

“While there is no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on severity of disease or evades the vaccine, the speed of growth is concerning,” the department said. The government “will not hesitate to take further action if necessary,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement.

That could include local restrictions or “flexing” the vaccination program, Zahawi told Sky News Friday. “But we think that the roadmap for Monday remains in place because the vaccines are delivering because they’re keeping people out of hospital.”

From Monday, cinemas and theaters in England will also be allowed to reopen, and international holidays will no longer be illegal.

Wales will also ease restrictions Monday, and people will be able to go on overseas holidays. But First Minister Mark Drakeford said his “strong advice” is that “this is the year to stay at home and enjoy all that Wales has to offer.”

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