June 21 hangs ‘in the balance’, warns Professor Neil Ferguson

Matt Hancock today said the link between Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths is being 'severed' but it is too early to say whether the June 21 lifting of lockdown will go ahead

Matt Hancock today said the link between Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths is being 'severed' but it is too early to say whether the June 21 lifting of lockdown will go ahead

Matt Hancock today said the link between Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths is being ‘severed’ but it is too early to say whether the June 21 lifting of lockdown will go ahead

Matt Hancock today warned it was still ‘too early’ to say whether No10 can press ahead with England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant.

The Health Secretary admitted he ‘desperately’ wanted to press ahead with plans to drop the final set of lockdown restrictions next month. But he said ministers would only ‘do that if it’s safe’.

Top scientists have called for Downing Street to delay the lockdown-easing roadmap because of the spread of the mutant B.1.617.2 strain.

Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, said he would advise Boris Johnson against fully unlocking next month because ‘at the moment it looks a little bit risky’.

Meanwhile, ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang ‘in the balance’.

The Imperial College London epidemiologist, who is also a member of SAGE, said the now dominant strain would trigger a ‘small third wave’ — but he said the next two or three weeks would be ‘critical’ in deciding whether it was safe to move to step four on the roadmap.

Mr Hancock discussed the threat of the Indian variant in the Commons today, where he also hit back at Dominic Cummings, the maverick ex-No10 aide who accused him of lying repeatedly and failing care home residents.

He told MPs the government had been ‘straight with people’ about the challenges that coronavirus posed and the difficult decisions. But he said the pandemic wasn’t ‘over yet’.

Mr Hancock – who is also holding a 5pm press conference tonight – said: ‘Our vaccination programme has reached 73 per cent of the adult population, but that means that more than a quarter still haven’t been jabbed.

‘Forty-three per cent of adults have had both jabs, but that means that more than half are yet to get the fullest possible protection that two jabs gives.

‘Yesterday we saw 3,180 new cases of coronavirus, the highest since April 12, but thanks to the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed, the link from cases to hospitalisations and to deaths is being severed.’

Asked by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt what measures could be taken to ensure June 21 could go ahead, Mr Hancock said: ‘It is true the Indian variant is spreading across the country, and estimates vary as to what proportion of the new cases each day are the variant first identified in India, which is more transmissible.

‘Now my assessment is that it is too early now to say, yet, whether we can take the full step four on June 21. Like him, I desperately want us to, but we will only do that if it’s safe.

‘We will make a formal assessment ahead of June 14 as to what step we can take on the 21st, and in that we will be both driven by the data, we will be advised on and guided by the science, and we will be fully transparent both with this House and with the public in those decisions.’

No10 yesterday refused to rule out imposing local lockdowns to tackle the spread of the variant.

Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that scientists were still ‘working to assess how much more transmissible it is’

But he said: ‘It has gone from being a small minority to a majority variant and that’s clearly of concern.

‘We know 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.’ He said by then ministers will be able ‘to come to a firm assessment of whether we can go forward’. 

Academics at King's College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — and 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day on May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively

Academics at King's College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — and 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day on May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively

Academics at King’s College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — and 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day on May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively

Department of Health statistics released today showed how the number of tests carried out dropped slightly in the week ending May 19

Department of Health statistics released today showed how the number of tests carried out dropped slightly in the week ending May 19

Department of Health statistics released today showed how the number of tests carried out dropped slightly in the week ending May 19

Separate Test and Trace statistics today showed the number of positive swabs across the country fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded — down from 14,082 in the previous seven-day spell. However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive. There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), despite 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England

Separate Test and Trace statistics today showed the number of positive swabs across the country fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded — down from 14,082 in the previous seven-day spell. However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive. There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), despite 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England

Separate Test and Trace statistics today showed the number of positive swabs across the country fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded — down from 14,082 in the previous seven-day spell. However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive. There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), despite 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England

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

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

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 Lockdown' Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang 'in the balance'

Professor Lockdown' Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang 'in the balance'

Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, said he would advise Boris Johnson against fully unlocking next month because 'at the moment it looks a little bit risky'

Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, said he would advise Boris Johnson against fully unlocking next month because 'at the moment it looks a little bit risky'

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. Professor John Edmunds (right), an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, said he would advise Boris Johnson against fully unlocking next month because ‘at the moment it looks a little bit risky’

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

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

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

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.’

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Professor Ferguson, whose grim modelling that hundreds of thousands of Brits could die without action prompted the first lockdown last March, 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.

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.’

And he seemingly backed No10’s maverick former chief aide’s devastating Covid takedown, saying it is ‘unarguable’ lives could have been saved in the first wave.

Meanwhile, Professor Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told ITV last night: ‘You know, the Indian variant is taking off in a number of places — not everywhere, but a number of places.

‘Luckily we’ve still got low levels, but it is concerning. And we are still not back to normal. We measure people’s contact patterns and we’re still at less than half of our normal contact patterns at the moment. So I think that is helping to keep the lid on it, to some extent.’

NHS bosses have said the next seven days will 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.

Though increasing cases are usually followed by rises in hospitalisations and deaths, officials say jabs have broken that once impenetrable link. But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said trusts ‘will be monitoring the data closely’ to ensure the Indian variant hasn’t scuppered the roll-out.

Department of Health figures show daily coronavirus infections in Britain rose by 18 per cent yesterday (3,180) compared to last Wednesday.

While hospital admissions (115) jumped by around 11 per cent compared with the previous seven days, according to the same statistics.  

Mr Hopson said 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 has continued at full steam ahead amid the threat of the Indian variant.

Another 387,987 top-up jabs were dished out across the country on Tuesday — 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 yesterday expanded to 30 and 31-year-olds. Northern Ireland today began offering jabs to all over-18s. Wales and Scotland have both already started to invite the youngest cohort.

Observing the rise in cases, Professor Ferguson — who is  dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ because of his role in the Government’s handling of the pandemic — said the increase had been anticipated.

Though he suggested 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. 

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

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

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

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

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)

Hancock will face MPs AND hold a press conference today in desperate fightback against Cummings

Matt Hancock will today hit back at Dominic Cummings’ vicious attacks on his pandemic record including allegations he lied repeatedly, failed care home residents and should have been ‘sacked daily’ for ‘criminal, disgraceful behaviour’.

The Health Secretary will give a statement in the Commons later after he and Boris Johnson’s were accused of ‘disastrous’ handling of the pandemic that had cost tens of thousands of lives.

He will then face the media at a Downing Street press briefing as he tries to brazen out the storm.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is set to answer questions as he visits a hospital this morning.

Mr Hancock insisted last night that he was focused on the vaccination drive, but a source called it a ‘character assassination’ that was ‘not backed by evidence’.

Senior Tories told MailOnline that Mr Cummings was engaged in epic ‘score settling’ and had a ‘selective memory’. ‘He should really have words with whoever was in charge last year,’ one said wryly.

Sent out on to the airwaves today, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted the public had only heard ‘one side of the story’ from Mr Cummings.

But he appeared to stop short of giving a full-throated defence, refusing to get into ‘specific allegations’ and merely saying Mr Hancock and his department had ‘worked exceptionally hard’.

Professor Neil Ferguson said scientists had become alarmed about the lack of a ‘clear’ government plan in March last year, and it was ‘unarguable’ that 20,000-30,000 lives could have been saved if the first lockdown had been triggered earlier.

‘The epidemic was doubling every three to four days in the weeks 13-23rd March. Had we moved the interventions back a week we would have curtailed that and saved many lives.’

Launching a dramatic bid to bring down the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary yesterday, Mr Cummings blamed a toxic mix of complacency and indecision for the needless deaths.

He told MPs that senior ministers and advisers, including himself, had fallen ‘disastrously short’, adding: ‘When the public needed us most, the Government failed. Tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die.’

In an extraordinary seven-hour performance, Mr Cummings launched attacks on Mr Johnson, his fiancée Carrie Symonds and Mr Hancock over their personal conduct during the crisis.

Mr Cummings claimed the Prime Minister was ‘unfit for the job’ and could not lead Britain out of the pandemic.

He said the Health Secretary ‘should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things, including lying’.

He alleged Mr Hancock had lied to the PM over the disastrous policy of not testing older people for Covid before they were discharged from hospital into care homes.

Mr Hancock told reporters outside his north London home last night: ‘I haven’t seen this performance today in full, and instead I’ve been dealing with getting the vaccination rollout going, especially to over-30s, and saving lives.

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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. 

Professor Ferguson said scientists had become alarmed about the lack of a ‘clear’ government plan in March last year, and it was ‘unarguable’ that 20,000-30,000 lives could have been saved if the first lockdown had been triggered earlier.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when SAGE 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’.

He 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’. 

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.  

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.’ 

No10 officials yesterday refused to rule out imposing local lockdowns to contain the Indian variant.

The PM’s official spokesperson said: ‘The roadmap sets out that we move together as a nation.

‘But obviously throughout this pandemic we wouldn’t want to rule anything out. But we are aiming wherever possible’ to stick to the approach set out in the roadmap.’ 

Hospital admissions have crept up over the past month in Bolton, the UK’s current Covid hotspot where the Indian strain is running rife.

And NHS figures even 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.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert based 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.’  

Link hienalouca.com

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