Experts warn vaccines are ‘less effective’ at reducing transmission of Indian variant

SAGE says it’s a ‘realistic possibility’ Indian variant could lead to 1,000 Covid deaths by summer 

There is a ‘realistic possibility’ the Indian Covid variant is far more transmissible than the Kent strain and could lead to up to a thousand deaths a day by summer, the Government’s scientists warned last night.

The SPI-M subgroup said it was confident the mutant B.1.617.2 strain was more infectious than the currently dominant variant, and that it could spread up to 50 per cent more easily.

It warned that pressing on with easing all lockdown restrictions on June 21, as is currently the plan for England, could lead to more than 10,000 more people being hospitalised with the disease daily by Autumn. 

The bleak forecasts were presented to No10 this week after cases of the strain more than doubled in seven days and four people were found to have died from the variant.  

Scientists advising SAGE this month estimated what a more transmissible strain could do to the country after lockdown is lifted in June and claimed it could trigger up to 20,000 hospital admissions per day in a worst-case scenario. January’s peak, which nearly crippled the NHS, was around 3,800 a day in England.

A Warwick University modelling team cautioned that if it was 40 per cent more transmissible the next surge could be worse than the second wave, with up to 6,000 daily admissions, and a 50 per cent increase could lead to 10,000 per day. Less grisly numbers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested a 50 per cent rise could lead to 4,000 per day.

But there are still glimmers of hope, with experts saying it remains unclear whether the current variant spreads significantly quicker or whether it is a coincidence it sprung up in places that already had high transmission or simply emerged in clusters linked to people flying into the country from abroad. 

Vaccines are still likely to work against the strain, research suggests, and there are no signs it is more deadly. But faster transmission means more people getting infected and more opportunities for ‘vaccine failure’ – when people get sick even after having a jab, which may happen to between five and 15 per cent of people.  

The variant still only makes up a minority of cases nationwide – around 10 per cent – but it is growing quickly and particularly in hotspots such as Bolton, Blackburn, Bedford and Sefton in Merseyside, where it is confirmed to account for more than half of all positive tests. 

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Experts have warned that vaccines are ‘almost certainly less effective’ at reducing the spread of the ‘highly transmissible’ Indian variant – as the British Medical Association urges ‘utmost caution’ with lockdown easing next week.

Boris Johnson announced last night that Britain will press ahead with plans for indoor drinking and dining from Monday – with ministers today insisting the rule change is the ‘safe and right thing to do’.

But government scientists revealed in minutes released on Friday night that the variant could ‘realistically’ be 50 per cent more infectious than the Kent strain – which models project could lead to 1,000 deaths a day, as well as 10,000 daily hospitalisations, by the summer.

The Prime Minister has pledged to ‘throw everything we have at this task’ and is set to send the Army into Britain’s worst variant hotspots to hand out tests in a bid to slow the spread. 

Adding to concerns, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation Dr Anthony Harnden today revealed that Britain’s vaccine rollout – hailed as the key to preventing another wave – may not stop the virus infecting the vulnerable.

He said the jab is not only ‘less effective against mild disease’, it is ‘almost certainly less effective against transmission’ – partly because immunisation only begins three weeks after the vaccine is given. 

He said the UK’s vaccine rollout is focusing on keeping hospitalisation and death figures low by vaccinating the vulnerable – who are more likely to see serious symptoms – to not overwhelm the NHS. 

But Dr Harnden stressed that some over 50s still haven’t had the jab, and urged local authorities to ‘get out there and vaccinate their unvaccinated people’. 

Second doses of vaccines will be accelerated for the over-50s and the clinically vulnerable across the country, so they are given eight weeks after the first dose instead of the current 12 weeks. 

At present the variant is spreading among unvaccinated younger age groups while cases remain lower among older vaccinated people. 

Although the most vulnerable people in Britain are protected against the variant by the vaccine, if it is allowed to spread uncontrolled among unvaccinated younger people it could still cause thousands of deaths and  hospitalisations in a third wave potentially more serious than Britain’s first and second. 

SAGE calculations upon which lockdown easing were based factored in the Kent variant but not a faster spreading strain.  

 BMA public health medicine committee co-chairman Dr Richard Jarvis today said the number of people still without the protection of a vaccine – and the rapid spread of the Indian variant – means the ‘utmost caution’ should be taken when lockdown restrictions ease. 

The Prime Minister will send in troops to help surge-testing efforts in Bolton – which is fighting a spike in infections almost ten times higher than the UK average – and neighbouring Blackburn. 

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Dr Harnden said: ‘This is a clearly more-transmissible virus, this B617 which originated in India. 

‘And the vaccines may be less effective against mild disease but we don’t think they’re less effective against severe disease.  In combination with being less effective against mild disease, they’re almost certainly less effective against transmission. 

‘We’ve got a very successful programme at the moment in preventing severe disease and we have had a key focus on hospitalisations and deaths. 

‘So we believe vaccinating those in at-risk groups who are currently unvaccinated, and bringing forward that second dose in the over 50s by four weeks, is a better strategy. 

‘And the reason that we think this is because if we immunise 18 to 29 year olds for instance in these areas, we would be taking vaccines from somebody else in the country. 

‘The vaccines may be less effective against transmission – as I said – and actually the immunity takes a number of weeks to develop.

‘So it’s not a very good strategy for preventing transmission.’

He stressed that the country can ‘cope with infection rates in the community providing we don’t get our hospitals overwhelmed’.

Meanwhile, the BMA’s Dr Jarvis urged ‘utmost caution’ as the next stage of Boris Johnson’s roadmap begins on Monday.

He said in a statement: ‘With key segments of the population still not vaccinated and clusters of variants, including the rapidly increasing Indian variant, becoming a growing concern, we must approach this next stage of easing lockdown with the utmost caution.

‘It is a real worry that when further measures lift on May 17, 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.

‘Despite having the highest rates of positive tests throughout the pandemic, they will now be able to mix in larger groups in hospitality venues without many of the mitigations that have helped to push infection rates lower and lower since the start of the year.

‘We are urging the public, and young people in particular, to take a cautious approach to social and physical contact, to continue practising ‘hands, face, space’ and to meet outdoors wherever possible.’

Health Minister Edward Argar today insisted that reopening indoor drinking and dining is ‘safe and the right thing to do’.

He told the Today Programme: ‘Now is the time for cool and calm heads. And I think that is what the Prime Minister is showing. He’s set out to the people where we are with this. 

‘But he’s been very clear that on the basis of the evidence we have at the moment, it is safe and the right thing to do to go ahead on Monday with the easing of restrictions. 

‘And we will see in the coming weeks whether anything that emerges from the evidence changes.’ 

It comes as: 

  • A key study confirms Pfizer and Moderna vaccines cut the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 by 94%;
  • Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings was among those calling for caution, sharing a post on social media which said ‘the cost of another big wave is much higher than the cost of delaying the next stage of the roadmap’. 
  • The PM warned THAT the UK’s ‘green list’ for quarantine-free travel won’t expand ‘very rapidly’;
  • The NHS vaccine site was inundated with Brits desperately trying to book a jab hours after the PM accelerated doses;
  • The UK confirms 2,193 more Covid cases in 12% weekly drop and 17 deaths as ONS survey finds England’s outbreak shrank AGAIN last week to just 41,000 people;
  • Nicola Sturgeon put the brakes in Scotland, with Glasgow and Moray remaining at higher tier of lockdown restrictions on Monday after surge in Covid cases
Boris Johnson announced last night that Britain will press ahead with plans for indoor drinking and dining from Monday - with ministers today insisting the rule change is the 'safe and right thing to do'

Boris Johnson announced last night that Britain will press ahead with plans for indoor drinking and dining from Monday - with ministers today insisting the rule change is the 'safe and right thing to do'

Boris Johnson announced last night that Britain will press ahead with plans for indoor drinking and dining from Monday – with ministers today insisting the rule change is the ‘safe and right thing to do’ 

Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day

Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day

Similar but less grim modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested that a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility could trigger a peak of 4,000 admissions per day in July or August, possibly extending to 6,000 per day

The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July - up to around 45,000 - compared to the current 845

The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July - up to around 45,000 - compared to the current 845

The LSHTM model suggested hospitals could have another 30,000 inpatients by the end of July – up to around 45,000 – compared to the current 845

The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible - which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January

The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible - which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January

The LSHTM team suggested that there will be 1,000 deaths per day in August if the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible – which would be less than the 1,900 seen at the peak this January

Members of the public queue at a temporary Covid-19 vaccination centre at the Essa academy in Bolton on Friday

Members of the public queue at a temporary Covid-19 vaccination centre at the Essa academy in Bolton on Friday

Members of the public queue at a temporary Covid-19 vaccination centre at the Essa academy in Bolton on Friday

Soldiers will be deployed on the streets to hand out tests, as was the case during mass testing in Liverpool last year (pictured)

Soldiers will be deployed on the streets to hand out tests, as was the case during mass testing in Liverpool last year (pictured)

Soldiers will be deployed on the streets to hand out tests, as was the case during mass testing in Liverpool last year (pictured)

Mr Argar was also forced to defend border restrictions, saying it is ‘impossible to completely hermetically seal’ the nation amid criticism of the delay in adding India to the travel red list. 

He said: ‘Our border controls, for want of a better way of putting it, to reduce the risk of an importation of a new variant of the disease are among the toughest in the world.

‘I do think we’ve got the right border controls in place to minimise, you can never totally eliminate, but to minimise the risk of not just this variant but other variants in the future.’

Questioned on why Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the red list while India was not, he said the decisions were made ‘on the basis of the evidence, based on a number of factors’.

‘There’s a number of different factors, it’s not a binary thing,’ he added. 

Speaking to BBC Breakfast on the lifting of the indoor-mixing ban, he said: ‘All the evidence so far suggests there is no evidence of increased severity of illness or that it evades the vaccine.

‘So, at the moment, on the basis of the evidence we are doing the right thing, coolly, calmly continuing with Monday, but keeping everything under review.’

Monday’s easing will allow people to socialise indoors in homes, pubs and restaurants, and will permit physical contact between households for the first time in more than a year.

Mr Argar said people should take personal responsibility when deciding whether or not to hug loved ones, when allowed to do so.

‘You have to take all the facts into consideration,’ he said. ‘It’s about personal responsibility, it’s about making the right judgment call.’ 

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty last night said that the Indian variant is ‘highly likely that the strain is more transmissible. 

The Prime Minister added: ‘I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.

‘But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June.’  

The SPI-M subgroup said it was confident the mutant B.1.617.2 strain was more infectious than the currently dominant variant, and that it could spread up to 50% more easily. 

Increased transmission could ‘lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)’ according to SAGE, and Whitty added that the strain was ‘quite widely seeded in a number of parts of England’ and it could overtake the Kent strain to become dominant in the UK.

He warned the UK could see ‘a really significant surge’ in Covid-19 cases if it proves to be a lot more transmissible, adding: ‘That’s a really critical question to which we do not yet have the answer.’ 

Scientists advising SAGE this month estimated what a more transmissible strain could do to the country after lockdown is lifted in June and claimed it could trigger up to 20,000 hospital admissions per day in a worst-case scenario of 50% more transmissibility. January’s peak, which nearly crippled the NHS, was around 3,800 a day in England.

A Warwick University modelling team cautioned that if it was 40 per cent more transmissible the next surge could be worse than the second wave, with up to 6,000 daily admissions, and a 50 per cent increase could lead to 10,000 per day. Less grisly numbers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested a 50 per cent rise could lead to 4,000 per day.

A Warwick University model of a more infectious variant after lockdown is completely lifted on June 21 suggests that any more than a 30 per cent increase in transmissibility compared to the Kent variant could lead to an August peak of daily hospital admissions that is higher than either the first or second wave. In a worst-case scenario with a variant 50 per cent more transmissible, hospital admissions could surge to 10,000 per day or even double that  (Thick lines indicate the central estimate while the thin lines are possible upper limits known as confidence intervals)

It led to Mr Johnson pleading with the public to use their common sense, warning there could be ‘hard choices in the weeks ahead’.

It was also revealed that the Indian variant has killed four people in Britain between May 5 and 12, out of 97 total Covid deaths in that period. 

The figures saw Mr Johnson accused of being ‘reckless, misguided and dangerous’ for not shutting Britain’s borders with India earlier after 122 cases of the variant entered the UK from India before the country was added to ‘red list’ of countries requiring quarantine. 

The PM defended his decision last night, but warned the variant could ‘pose a serious disruption’ to plans to ease restrictions and ‘could make it more difficult’ to end them as hoped in June.

Cases of the B.1.617.2 strain have more than doubled in the past week across the UK, with 1,313 cases detected by May 12, up from the 520 the previous week  

Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: ‘I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.

‘But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to Step 4 in June.’

He urged people to ‘think twice’ ahead of travelling to areas with higher incidences of the variant or staying with family and friends within those areas, adding they should ‘exercise their discretion and judgment in a way I’m sure that they have been throughout this pandemic’. 

People queue for the vaccination centre at the Essa Academy in Bolton, with the Indian variant proving a significant threat

People queue for the vaccination centre at the Essa Academy in Bolton, with the Indian variant proving a significant threat

People queue for the vaccination centre at the Essa Academy in Bolton, with the Indian variant proving a significant threat

Delay in shutting Britain’s borders with India was ‘reckless, misguided and dangerous’, say critics 

Boris Johnson was last night accused of being ‘reckless, misguided and dangerous’ for not shutting Britain’s borders with India earlier after four people died from the new Indian covid strain.

The country was only added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ late last month, despite earlier concerns over transmission of the fast-growing variant, which has since made its way onto British shores.  

Some have suggested that Prime Minister was keen to keep relations strong with India, having planned a visit – which subsequently had to be cancelled – as part of efforts to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal.

As a result, while flights were banned from neighbouring Pakistan early last month, borders between the two countries remained open for two more weeks, with as many as 8,000 people from India jetting into Britain on daily flights across that fortnight.

Data then shows 122 passengers entering the country from New Delhi and Mumbai between late March and April 26 were carrying the variant.

The opposition is now piling pressure on Mr Johnson after it was revealed this morning that the Indian strain has killed four people in Britain between May 5 and 12, 

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner tweeted tonight: ‘Boris Johnson’s decision to yet again refuse to learn from his mistakes and leave the borders open to arrivals from India without hotel quarantine is looking more and more reckless, misguided and dangerous by the hour.’

Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, added: ‘Boris Johnson must take responsibility for the failure to prevent the Indian variant taking root in the UK.

‘Once again the Government acted too late, and the country is sadly paying the price.’

However, the PM used his Downing Street press conference this evening to defend not shutting down travel sooner, saying that between March and April the South Africa variant was of greater concern than the India variant.’

 

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Other activity in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen includes extending pop-up vaccination sites and increasing the vaccination capacity of local pharmacies.

There will also be a increased community engagement programme to ensure as many people as possible accept the vaccine, take regular tests and comply with self-isolation rules if they return a positive result.

Enhanced contact tracing and genomic sequencing to identify the variant is also being deployed across many parts of the North West.

Blackburn with Darwen Council initially said on Thursday that it would be offering vaccines to all over-18s from next week following the increase in cases, but later said that, although additional vaccine clinics are being set up, the jab will only be offered to those eligible under current Government guidance.

The area’s director of public health, Professor Dominic Harrison, said on Twitter that the authority had asked the NHS to ‘surge vaccinate’ but the request was refused.

He tweeted: ‘At the moment the Indian variant is surging in a small number of £localgov areas.

‘These areas have a window of opportunity to control the wider spread across the UK by a mixture of community engagement, surge testing and surge vaccination.

‘If the Government stops areas with high #IndianVariant cases from ‘surge vaccinating’ target areas (which will contribute to reduced transmission) – it will reduce our local capacity to control spread.’

In Bolton, the area with the highest rate of cases, with 553 new infections in the seven days to May 9, mobile testing units have been deployed and door-to-door PCR Covid testing has been offered to 22,000 residents.

A vaccine bus has been set up to increase uptake among those who are eligible and a rapid response team of 100 nurses, public health advisers and environmental health officers has been sent in.

In the affluent Formby area of Sefton, new drive-through and walk-through test centres were set up on Friday, specifically to identify the Indian variant.

Sefton’s director of public health Margaret Jones said: ‘Working with Public Health England, in response to a localised outbreak of infections and cases of the variant first identified in India, we have identified sites for test centres in and around Formby.

‘We are encouraging everyone aged over 16 who lives, works or studies in Formby to attend one of these dedicated local test sites, once they are open.

‘Anyone who has visited any venue in Formby over the last two weeks is also welcome to be tested at these test sites.’ 

Scientists believe the Indian variant is even more infectious than the highly virulent Kent strain currently dominant in the UK – but it is not yet clear by how much. There are no signs it is more deadly or resistant to vaccines.  

The Prime Minister was criticised last night for not closing borders with India early enough, with the country only added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ late last month, despite earlier concerns over transmission of the fast-growing variant.  

Some have suggested that Mr Johnson was keen to keep relations strong with India, having planned a visit – which subsequently had to be cancelled – as part of efforts to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal.

As a result, while flights were banned from neighbouring Pakistan early last month, borders between the two countries remained open for two more weeks, with as many as 8,000 people from India jetting into Britain on daily flights across that fortnight.

Data then shows 122 passengers entering the country from New Delhi and Mumbai between late March and April 26 were carrying the variant.

The opposition is now piling pressure on the PM, with Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner tweeting: ‘Boris Johnson’s decision to yet again refuse to learn from his mistakes and leave the borders open to arrivals from India without hotel quarantine is looking more and more reckless, misguided and dangerous by the hour.’

Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, added: ‘Boris Johnson must take responsibility for the failure to prevent the Indian variant taking root in the UK.

‘Once again the Government acted too late, and the country is sadly paying the price.’ 

Meanwhile, SAGE suggested the R rate for England had risen slightly to somewhere between 0.8 and 1.1, from a possible high of 1.0 last week. If the number is above one it will mean the outbreak is growing. The R rate - the number of people infected by each Covid case - is now almost redundant, however, because it is guaranteed to rise above one as lockdown is lifted and is particularly unreliable when case numbers are low

Meanwhile, SAGE suggested the R rate for England had risen slightly to somewhere between 0.8 and 1.1, from a possible high of 1.0 last week. If the number is above one it will mean the outbreak is growing. The R rate - the number of people infected by each Covid case - is now almost redundant, however, because it is guaranteed to rise above one as lockdown is lifted and is particularly unreliable when case numbers are low

Meanwhile, SAGE suggested the R rate for England had risen slightly to somewhere between 0.8 and 1.1, from a possible high of 1.0 last week. If the number is above one it will mean the outbreak is growing. The R rate – the number of people infected by each Covid case – is now almost redundant, however, because it is guaranteed to rise above one as lockdown is lifted and is particularly unreliable when case numbers are low

However, the PM used his Downing Street press conference on Friday evening to defend not shutting down travel sooner, saying that between March and April the South Africa variant was of greater concern than the India variant.’

‘Don’t forget everyone coming from India, or indeed anywhere else, had to face very tough quarantine rules,’ he added.

‘We are concerned about this variant and we do think, I think, that it certainly may cause disruption to our attempts to continue down the road map, but they don’t at the moment, change the assessment about about (the next) step.’ 

As SAGE outlined concerns over the variant, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings was among those calling for caution, sharing a post on social media which said ‘the cost of another big wave is much higher than the cost of delaying the next stage of the roadmap’.

A Warwick University modelling team cautioned that, if the variant was 40 per cent more transmissible than the UK dominant Kent strain, the next surge could be worse than the second wave, with up to 6,000 daily hospital admissions.

A 50 per cent increase could lead to 10,000 admissions per day. However, less grisly numbers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggested a 50 per cent rise could lead to 4,000 per day. 

It came as ministers revealed teenagers could be offered jabs as authorities battle to bring the outbreaks under control, with one pharmacy in Sefton offering walk-in jabs for anyone over 20. 

Ten million vulnerable Britons are also being fast-tracked for their second Covid dose over fears the new strain could spark a deadly third wave.

And the Independent SAGE group said: ‘In the light of the new variant, we consider that any increase of mixing in indoor spaces (whether domestic or commercial) to be highly inadvisable, particularly in areas with already proven high levels of B.1.617.2. 

‘Accordingly, local directors of public health should have the discretion to determine when the relaxation of measures can safely occur. 

‘Additionally, indoor commercial spaces should only be allowed to reopen if they can maintain adequate social distancing and have proper ventilation, with a priority program of inspection developed in co-operation with the Health and Safety Executive.’

Earlier, top infectious disease expert Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, warned the June end of lockdown will be ‘in doubt’ if the variant causes a surge in serious illness, threatening to send the Government’s unlocking plans into chaos. 

Ministers are so far resisting calls to slow the roadmap, insisting the current vaccines roll-out is able to cope. PHE Covid variant expert Professor Nick Loman, from Birmingham University, said the Indian variant’s effect on vaccines is ‘not particularly concerning’.

Meanwhile, SAGE suggested the R rate for England had risen slightly to somewhere between 0.8 and 1.1, from a possible high of 1.0 last week. If the number is above one it will mean the outbreak is growing. The R rate – the number of people infected by each Covid case – is now almost redundant, however, because it is guaranteed to rise above one as lockdown is lifted and is particularly unreliable when case numbers are low. 

Another 2,183 daily Covid cases were announced across the UK, down 12 per cent on last week, and another 17 deaths were recorded, which were up slightly on the 15 last Friday.

Professor Loman said the mutations carried by the Indian strain do not seem to allow it to dodge vaccine-gained immunity.

‘The mutations we see in the genome are not predicted to have a big impact on the shape of the protein and change how antibodies produced by the natural infection or the vaccine will work,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

An emergency meeting will be held by experts at the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee on Thursday after it was found that India's Covid variant is now dominant in five local authorities in England. There are mounting concerns that it is more infectious than the currently dominant Kent strain

An emergency meeting will be held by experts at the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee on Thursday after it was found that India's Covid variant is now dominant in five local authorities in England. There are mounting concerns that it is more infectious than the currently dominant Kent strain

An emergency meeting will be held by experts at the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee on Thursday after it was found that India’s Covid variant is now dominant in five local authorities in England. There are mounting concerns that it is more infectious than the currently dominant Kent strain

MORE THAN 30% OF COVID CASES IN LONDON ARE DUE TO THE INDIAN VARIANT 

Almost a third of Covid cases in London are due to the Indian variant, official figures reveal.

Public Health England said in its latest update that there had been 400 cases of the mutant strain in the capital.  

It means the variant was behind 31.5 per cent of the 1,300 cases sequenced by May 12.

Only 26 per cent of these, or just 100 infections, were linked to international travel, suggesting it is spreading widely in the community.

Analysis by MailOnline shows some parts of London have given a first vaccine dose to just over 50 per cent of residents over the age of 40.

That is well below the national average of 83 per cent. 

In the North West, where infection rates are also accelerating, the B.1.617.2 variant was blamed for 25 per cent of cases sequenced. Just seven per cent were linked to international travel. 

It has recorded 312 total cases of the virulent strain. 

Boris Johnson has faced criticism for being too slow to place India on the red list, which is presumed to have accelerated the virus’ spread in the UK. 

The technical briefing also offered hope that the strain was still vulnerable to vaccine-triggered immunity.

It showed only 13 out of 1,200 cases identified were thought to be possible reinfections – or just one per cent.

Reinfections – two positive tests at least 90 days apart – have been spotted for every mutant strain in the country, but only very low levels.

The vaccines are targeted at older form of the virus, meaning they provide the same level of protection as to people that have suffered a previous infection.

‘A small proportion of reinfections have been sequenced through standard national surveillancing,’ PHE said.

‘This is expected with any prevalent variant; comparative analyses are underway’.

Experts say the mutant strains effect on vaccines is ‘not particularly concerning’ as suggested by early studies.

The strain has been split into three types by PHE scientists, but only one – B.1.617.2 – is sparking concern in official circles due to surging infection rates.

This carries the L452R and P681R changes which are thought to make the virus more transmissible, but does not have the E484Q change seen in the other Indian variants that could make jabs less effective.

Source: PHE

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‘And the limited experimental data available on vaccine efficacy is not particularly concerning… The thing that makes it reassuring is that the vaccines work really well and we do have options in, as you say, changing the dosing schedule and changing the way we approach vaccinations.’

The Birmingham University scientist added it was possible accelerating cases were being driven by a large number of imports from abroad, rather than the virus being more transmissible.

‘We know the virus is growing very fast and particularly in certain regions of the UK but that does not necessarily mean that the virus is more transmissible.

‘Last summer… we imported very large numbers of cases from holidaymakers – predominantly returning from Spain – and that produced the same fast growth rate that we see, but then levelled off.

‘Simply because the propoulsive force of having so many imports all at the same time, and that produced that fast growth rate but then it levelled off. And in retrospect we didn’t think that that variant was more transmissible.’ 

Epidemiologist Professor Paul Hunter said that the nation faces an anxious wait to see how serious the outbreaks of the highly contagious strain are and how many people end up in hospital.

But Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said that England’s inoculation roll-out would ‘flex’ to tackle the outbreak and the roadmap would continue as planned.

He insisted that the jab could control the impact of the virus strain which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in India. 

Some local health chiefs are taking matters into their own hands and Hirshman Pharmacy in Sefton, Merseyside – one of the hotspots – offered a walk-in clinic giving the Pfizer jab to anyone over the age of 20, the Liverpool Echo reported.

Scientists are trying to work out if it is more infectious than previous strains.

Modelling by the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned that if it proves to be a lot more transmissible than the currently dominant Kent version then it could result in a third wave deadlier than the second. 

No10’s scientists said it could trigger up to 20,000 hospital admissions per day in a worst-case scenario. January’s peak, which nearly crippled the NHS, was around 3,800 a day in England. 

A Warwick University modelling team cautioned that if it was 40 per cent more transmissible the next surge could be worse than the second wave, with up to 6,000 daily admissions, and a 50 per cent increase could lead to 10,000 per day.

Step 4 of England’s lockdown-easing plans, involving the almost complete end to Covid restrictions, is due to take place on June 21 if there are no setbacks.

But speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Hunter, who has worked for the World Health Organization, said: ‘The big question is how many people who are getting the Indian variant will end up requiring hospitalisation.

‘At the moment the hospitalisation rate doesn’t seem to be increasing yet although if this becomes much more common we will almost certainly see some increase. 

‘So it’s certainly a concern. I think Step 4 is in doubt in June now, but we really need to see what impact it has on severe disease before we can really be certain.’   

Asked why June 21 is in doubt, he said: ‘Well, because if the epidemic continues to increase, if the Indian variant of the epidemic continues to increase at the same rate as it has over recent weeks, we’re going to have a huge number of cases by June.

‘The issue though is that because it seems to be spreading in unvaccinated younger people at the moment and not yet that much more active in older people maybe we’ll be able to weather it and we’ll still be able to have the step four in June.

‘But if that increases cases in elderly and starts to increase hospitalisations, and puts pressure on the NHS again then I think step four would be in doubt.’

Older people living in areas of high infection are also to be offered their second dose of the vaccine early to protect them.

It means a total of ten million people who are considered to be most vulnerable could have their second doses of the vaccine brought forward to prevent them getting hospitalised if Britain faces a third wave, The Times reported.

Mr Zahawi said that adults as young as 18 could be offered the jab if they live in multi-generational households.

‘The clinicians will look at all of this to see how we can flex the vaccination programme to make it as effective as possible to deal with this surge in this variant, the B1617.2,’ he told Sky News.

‘They will make those decisions and we will be ready to implement, whether it’s vaccinating younger cohorts.

‘We have been doing some work on multi-generational households where we vaccinate the whole household, over-18s, and of course the older groups who are already eligible.’  

Cinemas, theatres and restaurants may be spared Covid passport hassle 

Covid passports may be waived for cinemas, theatres and restaurants as ministers plan to scale back the circumstances where they are needed.

Pubs are already excused having to check the vaccine status of punters amid an outcry and now more businesses are set to avoid measures critics say will have a constricting effect on business. 

A review is expected to report on the scope of any domestic passport scheme by the end of the month.

But ministers questioned their health benefits at a meeting on the subject last week, the Telegraph reported. 

It also said that there were feared that physical passports for those without smartphones might be a forgery risk.

Amid nosediving hospitalisation rates across England a source told the paper: ‘This different reality has prompted people saying, ”well actually, I saw the benefit of it before but do we really need it?”’ 

 

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Professor John Edmunds, epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Sage, said that at this stage, efforts should be focused on local measures.

He said: ‘We should look at whatever we can locally in terms of containing the spread. That’s a much better way of doing it. It’s still fairly isolated.

‘It’s only if it gets out there and it becomes more widespread, that more widespread measures might be necessary.’

But Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary’s University of London, told Times Radio: ‘If it’s growing now, with current restrictions, we can’t afford to be easing restrictions.

‘We are seeing rapid exponential growth. And if we ease restrictions further, that’s leading us straight into another lockdown.’

Professor Christina Pagel, the director of the clinical operational research unit and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts, said in The Guardian on Wednesday that the rate at which cases of the new variant were increasing showed the lifting of lockdown restrictions should be delayed. 

Dominic Cummings then shared a separate Tweet saying that if there was only a 20 per cent chance that Professor Pagel was correct, ‘the cost of another big wave is much higher than the cost of delaying the next stage of the Roadmap’ – suggesting he supports a delay in lifting lockdown restrictions.  

Professor Ravi Gutpa, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University, said it was 50:50 whether restrictions would be eased on June 21.

He told Sky News: ‘The problem is that (the variant) has seeded so quickly that it’s probably spread to other areas.

‘So we may get dissemination of the virus before the vaccine has taken effect. It’s going to be a difficult decision and it’s 50:50 at the moment.’

Steve Baker, of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said ministers should not be considering extending lockdowns.

He added: ‘Why on Earth would we lock down when the vaccines continue to break the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths?’

The case count was on a par with last Thursday’s – a 1.7 per cent rise from 2,613 — but the number of positive test results have been rising for over a week, with fears growing about the highly infectious Indian variant that is spreading quickly.

Deaths were down 15 per cent, continuing three months of decline, and hospital admissions are also still tumbling thanks to the vaccine rollout.

Zahawi refuses to rule out local lockdowns 

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said ‘we will take nothing off the table’ when asked if local lockdowns are being considered by officials in areas with a surge of the variant first identified in India.

He put himself on a potential collision path with local politicians, who clashed with ministers over a scheme used late last year.

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘Over a year of dealing with this pandemic suggests that the most effective way of dealing with this, because we have had such a successful vaccination programme, is the surge testing by postcode, the genome sequencing and isolation, so that is our focus, that is our priority.

‘But we will take nothing off the table, whether it is regional or national further measures that we would need to take, we will deal with this.’

But Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said he would not welcome local lockdowns to combat the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant.

He told Sky News: ‘My heart sank yesterday when I heard the Prime Minister reintroduce the possibility of local lockdowns; they really didn’t work.

‘We were under different forms of local lockdown pretty much for the whole of the second half of last year and it took a huge toll on people, obviously on our businesses and our economy.

‘We are in a different situation this year because, even though we are seeing spread of the Indian variant in Bolton, we are not seeing the same numbers of people going into hospital because obviously older people are more protected now.

‘So we don’t need to have the same response that we had last year. We do believe if we move quickly on vaccination we can take away any risk of a local lockdown.’

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Eight out of 10 over-40s in England have had a Covid vaccine – but parts of London lag behind 

More than eight in 10 people aged 40 and above in England have now had at least one dose of Covid vaccine, latest official figures show.

NHS England data released yesterday revealed that, across the whole country, 83 per cent of adults in the age group had at least one jab by May 9.

In nearly 50 areas coverage was 90 per cent or higher but MailOnline analysis shows vaccination rates vary wildly across the country.

Uptake is as low as 57.7 per cent in two boroughs in London – Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, which have both seen the some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country throughout the roll-out.

By comparison, North East Derbyshire has the highest rate in the country, with 56,646 out of 60,848 in the age group having their first dose — 93.1 per cent.

The success of the rollout had led to calls for lockdown-easing plans to be accelerated. But Boris Johnson has refused to rule out extending measures due to rapidly increasing cases of the Indian variant.

The PM admitted yesterday he was ‘anxious’ about its spread and will ‘rule nothing out’ in his efforts to contain it.

Scientists believe it could be as, or more, transmissible than the Kent strain that triggered the second wave in the UK – but they are confident the jabs will protect against it. Ministers boosted the roll-out of second doses of vaccines for ten million Britons across the UK in an effort to protect them in the event there is a third wave.

Public Health England figures showed yesterday cases of the mutant strain had more than doubled in a week, rising from 520 confirmed infections to 1,313. But these figures lag at least a week behind the spread of the virus, because it takes time to sequence every case, suggesting the current outbreak may be larger.

Government ministers last night shut down plans by local health officials in Blackburn and Darwen to offer vaccines to all residents aged over 18 amid rising Indian variant cases in the area. NHS sources said officials must stick to the aged-centred priority list designed by JCVI top scientists.

 

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11th hour deal to SAVE Portugal trips: Insider hints that holidays for thousands of Britons could be back on as Lisbon officials plead with EU to end travel ban due to ‘millions of pounds at stake’

UK tourists still hoping to visit Portugal from Monday could have their holidays saved as the country holds crunch talks with the EU about non-essential travel.

Portugal had been expected to lift its ban on European tourists entering – including Britons – from Sunday, but reports then followed that this might not be until May 30.

The move would mean Britons with holidays booked there next week – to coincide with the UK’s own travel ban being lifted on Monday – face having them cancelled.

It would also block thousands of football fans who have booked tickets for the Champions League final in Porto between Chelsea and Manchester City on May 29.

People in the UK have been venting their fury after their holidays to Lisbon, Faro and Porto were thrown into doubt – but there are now claims that they could still happen.

One senior travel industry insider told MailOnline: ‘Portugal are in discussions with the EU today about relaxing the rules on allowing non-essential travel in the bloc.

‘So there is still a chance that the 20 flights could still happen on Monday. But if there is a deal there may not be an announcement until the 11th hour.

‘The airlines are in the dark – although they may be lobbying in Brussels – but I’m optimistic there will be an agreement. I’m confident that this will be sorted.

‘The Portuguese want to open up because there are millions of pounds at stake. I think this is an EU decision, but the Portuguese are working hard to get this done.’

Among the tourists worried about their upcoming holiday are Sue and Sean Flynn, both 55 and from Leeds, who are hoping to fly to Faro with Ryanair next Friday.

Sue Flynn, 55, from Leeds, is hoping to fly on holiday to Faro with Ryanair next Friday. She spoke to Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty on BBC Breakfast this morning

Sue Flynn, 55, from Leeds, is hoping to fly on holiday to Faro with Ryanair next Friday. She spoke to Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty on BBC Breakfast this morning

Sue Flynn, 55, from Leeds, is hoping to fly on holiday to Faro with Ryanair next Friday. She spoke to Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty on BBC Breakfast this morning

Ryanair aircraft and ancillary equipment are prepared at London Stansted Airport this morning

Ryanair aircraft and ancillary equipment are prepared at London Stansted Airport this morning

Ryanair aircraft and ancillary equipment are prepared at London Stansted Airport this morning

Britons still hoping to travel to Portugal when it is added to the UK's 'green list' in three days' time can snap up a flight from London to Faro or Porto for as little as £17 return

Britons still hoping to travel to Portugal when it is added to the UK's 'green list' in three days' time can snap up a flight from London to Faro or Porto for as little as £17 return

Britons still hoping to travel to Portugal when it is added to the UK’s ‘green list’ in three days’ time can snap up a flight from London to Faro or Porto for as little as £17 return

Flights to Portugal drop 74% in four days with returns to Faro and Porto for just £17 

Britons still hoping to travel to Portugal when it is added to the UK’s ‘green list’ in three days’ time can snap up a flight from London to Faro or Porto for as little as £17 return.

There have been huge price reductions this week with flights to both destinations down by more than 70 per cent since Monday.

Flights to Lisbon have also fallen by more than 40 per cent in four days to £39 return, when travelling with Ryanair on May 17 and coming back a week later.

There has also been a fall of 86 per cent in one week after the cheapest return to Lisbon when checked last Friday before the ‘green list’ announcement was £282 with TAP Portugal.

Over the weekend Ryanair launched a flurry of new flights to Portugal, with Lisbon initially priced at £67 return on Monday.

As for Faro, a return from Stansted is now £17, having been £63 on Monday – down 73 per cent in four days.

And Porto has dropped by a similar level, 74 per cent, from £66 on Monday to £17.

However, as for the other main warm weather destination on Britain’s ‘green list’, Gibraltar, prices have shot up over the past week.

Last Friday, the cheapest return was with WizzAir from Luton at £76, but this has gone up to £147 – a rise of 93 per cent in a week.

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Mrs Flynn told BBC Breakfast this morning: ‘We’ve booked with Ryanair to go on a flight and we’ve booked the accommodation as well, my husband and I.

‘We’ve been trying since last year really to get away. We have a holiday business in Kalkan in Turkey, and we’ve not been able to get there since October.

‘We’ve had four flights cancelled, and when we thought that Portugal was going on the green list, we thought, well, we’ll change to there.

‘But unfortunately this has come along, to throw a curveball, and here we are again looking at potentially cancelled flights – it’s really frustrating.’

Mrs Flynn said she and her husband have both had their two Covid-19 vaccines and are ‘very, very careful’ having been shielding for much of the pandemic.

She added:  ‘We’ve been used to taking our own precautions and looking after ourselves. The flight, I believe, is as safe as a flight can be.

‘We have self-catering accommodation. So as far as I’m concerned we can look after ourselves. But I do understand the overall concerns for everyone flopping off to a holiday.’

Mrs Flynn continued: ‘I think we’ve all got used to not knowing, and it really takes away the shine off going on holiday and being able to look forward to it.

‘Instead you’re worrying and wondering – is it actually going to happen?

‘It may or it may not, and we’ll just have to live with that if it doesn’t unfortunately, and try and get refunds from the operators that we’ve booked with.’ 

Other tourists took to Twitter to share their concerns about holidays this month to Portugal. One said: ‘I have just changed holiday from Lanzarote, now going to Portugal, but it’s saying not open for holiday. We go May 30, very worried now.’

Another tweeted: ‘I’m flying to Faro next Thursday. Is holiday likely to be cancelled due to recent news about Portugal? How far in advance will you make a decision.’ 

A third tourist hoping for a holiday in Portugal said they had got ‘sucked in by green list this and that’. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that as of May 17 the ‘stay in the UK’ restriction will lift, meaning people will be able to travel to green list countries such as Portugal without self-isolating on their return.

But guidance published on the Portuguese government’s website on Thursday stated that ministers had approved a move to continue the current level of lockdown.

UK holidaymakers are currently prohibited from entering the European Union, but holiday firms have reported huge demand for trips to Portugal following the publication of the green list. 

EasyJet has added 105,000 extra seat to its flights serving green tier destinations, while Tui plans to use aircraft which normally operate long-haul routes to accommodate the surge of people booked to fly to Portugal.

 

A spokesman for Tui said: ‘We’re monitoring the situation closely and will provide a further update as soon as we have clarification from the Portuguese government.

‘We would like to reassure customers that we will contact them directly if their flight or holiday is impacted to discuss their options, this includes offering a full refund or the chance to change the holiday for free.’

The Portuguese archipelago of Madeira is open for tourism.

Thousands of British football fans are hoping to travel to Porto in mainland Portugal for the all-English Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea on May 29.

The final had previously been due to be held in Istanbul but was moved to Portugal following talks between UK ministers and UEFA organisers after Turkey was added to England’s travel red list.

Uefa previously confirmed that 6,000 tickets would be made available to each of the finalists, with the final capacity limit at the Estadio do Dragao still to be fixed.

However, officials in Lisbon suggested the Portuguese cabinet talks about Covid concerned extending the country’s official ‘state of calamity’ and would not change the lifting of the travel ban. 

People enjoy the sunshine on the beach at Nazare in Portugal in August 2016

People enjoy the sunshine on the beach at Nazare in Portugal in August 2016

People enjoy the sunshine on the beach at Nazare in Portugal in August 2016

The Champions League final in Porto is between Chelsea and Manchester City and it is hoped 6,000 fans from each club will attend. Pictured: Man City and Chelsea fans at Wembley in 2019

The Champions League final in Porto is between Chelsea and Manchester City and it is hoped 6,000 fans from each club will attend. Pictured: Man City and Chelsea fans at Wembley in 2019

The Champions League final in Porto is between Chelsea and Manchester City and it is hoped 6,000 fans from each club will attend. Pictured: Man City and Chelsea fans at Wembley in 2019

Chelsea and Manchester City fans face strict Portuguese travel requirements 

English fans travelling to Portugal for the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City have been told they must fly in and out of the country within 24 hours.

The Portuguese government also said supporters will have to operate in ‘bubbles’, arrive and depart only on charter planes, and face Covid-19 tests for the May 29 clash in Porto.

The European showpiece has been switched from Istanbul after the UK Government added Turkey to its high-risk ‘red list’ for international travel.

Chelsea and City will each be provided with 6,000 tickets for the match at the Estadio do Dragao.

Quoted on the BBC website, Portugal’s cabinet affairs minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said ‘Those who come to the final of the Champions League will come and return on the same day, with a test done, in a bubble situation, on charter flights.

‘There will be two fan zones and from there they will be moved to the stadium and from the stadium to the airport, being in Portugal less than 24 hours.

‘Obviously those coming by plane [to be in Porto while the match is on but do not actually go the stadium] will comply with the established rules and security measures will be put in place.’

City said on their website that they will provide ‘qualifying supporters an official day trip travel package from Manchester to Porto.’

Wembley was considered as an alternative to Porto, but the UK Government could not accommodate UEFA’s request to allow quarantine exemptions for thousands of sponsors, VIPs and broadcasters.

Secretary of State Oliver Dowden told a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing the UK Government had constructive dialogue with UEFA but a resolution could not be reached.

‘Ultimately I was unable and the Government was unable to give an assurance to UEFA that we would be willing to vary our quarantine rules in the way they wished to happen,’ Dowden said.

‘We had a very constructive discussion with UEFA and it was a genuine difference that couldn’t be overcome. I respect the decision that UEFA made and I think they respect the fact the Government wasn’t able to move on that.’

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (left) and Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel will go head to head in Porto (Ben Stansall/PA).

The decision means Portugal will host the Champions League final for the second year in a row, after Lisbon was the location for the delayed final stages of last season’s competition.

UEFA said: ‘The final was originally scheduled to take place at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul but, following the UK government’s decision to place Turkey on its red list of Covid-19 travel destinations, staging the final there would have meant none of the clubs’ domestic fans would be able to travel to the game.

‘After a year of fans being locked out of stadiums, UEFA thought that everything needed to be done to ensure the supporters of the two finalist teams could attend.

‘UEFA discussed moving the match to England but, despite exhaustive efforts on the part of the Football Association and the authorities, it was not possible to achieve the necessary exemptions from UK quarantine arrangements.’

 

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They said it related to its ability to introduce emergency Covid legislation and would not include tourism, which they said was still expected to be given the green light from Sunday. 

A formal announcement clarifying the situation is expected later.

It came as the BBC reported that the Portuguese government will require UK football fans to fly in and out of the country on the day of the match. 

Fans will also have to stay in a ‘bubble’ while in the city. 

The country’s cabinet affairs minister, Mariana Vieira da Silva, said: ‘Those who come to the final of the Champions League will come and return on the same day, with a test done, in a bubble situation, on charter flights.

‘There will be two fan zones and from there they will be moved to the stadium and from the stadium to the airport, being in Portugal less than 24 hours.’ 

Air fares from London and Manchester to Porto soared after the final was moved there.

On Friday May 21, Ryanair had seats on an early flight from Manchester to Porto for £10.

A week later, the day before the final, the same flight cost £288 as seats started being snapped up.

Other flights before or on the day of the final were going for £300 or more.

According to the BBC, Ms Vieira da Silva said in a briefing yesterday she had ‘no information to give yet’ when asked if restrictions on travel from the UK would soon be lifted. 

Cristovao Norte, Portuguese MP for the Algarve, said a decision should be taken ‘immediately’. 

He told BBC Breakfast on Friday: ‘We are today going to make an urgent inquiry asking the (Portuguese) government whether or not the English travel can come to Portugal next Monday because we are three days ahead from 17th and no one is sure what is going to happen.

‘Our vaccination process is going steadily and it is important a decision is taken immediately.

‘The message is clear: there are no reasons, nor political or scientific reasons to maintain restrictions for travel from the UK to Portugal.’

Ms Vieira da Silva said under current plans for the Champions League final, a series of restrictions to British fans would apply.

As well as the limit on ticket sales, fans will have to fly in on charter planes, arriving and leaving ‘on the same day’, the BBC said. 

Ms Vieira da Silva described the plans as ‘a bubble situation’, with fans passing through a separate zone at the airport and needing a negative coronavirus test before travelling.

Guidance from the Department of Transport warns that many green list countries still have restrictions on UK travellers.

It advises passengers to check all entry and testing requirements and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) travel advice for Portugal before booking travel.

It is understood the UK Government has been in discussion with Portuguese representatives this week to discuss plans to unlock travel between the two countries.

The Government is also in talks with the European Commission on how to safely reopen travel routes on the continent, it is understood.  

During the ‘state of calamity’, entry to Portugal is only allowed if you are a returning resident, according to information on the FCDO website.

Entry to non-residents is limited to essential purposes from the UK and other non-EU countries, and EU or European Economic Area countries where the case rate is above 150 cases per 100,000 residents.

‘Essential purposes’ are defined as travelling to live with immediate family members or professional, educational, health or humanitarian reasons.

To enter Portugal, proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken with 72 hours of departure is required.

Those without proof of a negative test can be refused permission to board a flight, or may be forced to quarantine in government-approved accommodation upon arrival.

Link hienalouca.com

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