U.K. Keeps Close Eye on Covid Variants Posing Risk to Reopening

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The U.K. government is closely monitoring the spread of Covid-19 variants and cautioned it is too early to say if hospitality venues in England can reopen indoors as planned next month.

The comments from Environment Secretary George Eustice on Sunday will fuel growing concerns that the government’s road map out of lockdown could be knocked off course by mutations in the virus, which scientists fear may be partially resistant to vaccines.

The next stage of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to unlock more of the economy is on May 17, when hotels, cinema and museums are allowed to reopen, and other hospitality venues including pubs and restaurants -- which were allowed to open outdoors earlier this month -- can serve customers inside.

But ministers have long said easing lockdown is dependent on the continued success of the vaccine rollout, as well as the impact that relaxing rules has on infection rates at each stage. A vaccine-evading mutation would undermine both.

‘On Track’

“We are on track in the sense that we are on track with the rollout of the vaccination program,” Eustice told the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday. “But we are being a bit cautious here. So although we have now got 60% of the adult population vaccinated, we do just have to keep a close eye on these variants of concern.”

In addition to tracking variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil, authorities have begun so-called surge testing focused on an Indian strain after confirming 77 cases in the U.K.

Researchers are still investigating how transmissible the variant is, as well as its ability to evade vaccines, Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the National Health Service’s test-and-trace program, told the BBC.

The government is pushing ahead with a series of trials it hopes will enable the restart of mass events that were banned during the pandemic. London’s Wembley Stadium welcomes back soccer fans for the first time in more than a year on Sunday.

Key Trip

The discovery of the Indian variant in the U.K. has also put Johnson’s planned visit to India this month under scrutiny. The country is not on the U.K.’s travel ban list despite facing record infections.

Eustice told Sky News there is “no evidence at the moment” that the Indian variant can evade vaccines, calling Johnson’s trip -- during which he’s due to meet his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi -- appropriate.

“It is important that business, and the business of politics if you like, does continue and doesn’t stop completely -- we just need to make sure we take the right precautions,” he said, adding that the trip will be “Covid secure.”

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