Covid cases rise by more than a QUARTER in a week in the UK

Daily coronavirus cases have crept up slightly again today in the UK, with 3,398 tests recorded in the country — a 26.1 per cent rise on last week. 

It continues an 11-day trend of rising case numbers, although overall the infection rate remains low despite the rapid spread of the Indian variant.

Deaths with Covid also increased today to seven up from just six on Saturday last week — a slight rise of 16.7 per cent. 

Meanwhile, Britain’s mammoth vaccination drive has continued at pace, with 197,146 first doses dished out on Monday, taking the overall number to more than 39million. 

Some 414,364 second doses were also given out yesterday, with more than 23.2million people in the country now fully vaccinated.

Matt Hancock today praised the success of the country’s vaccine roll-out after nearly three quarters of people adults have now  had a first vaccine and nearly half are fully vaccinated.

The Health Secretary Tweeted: ‘Vaccine update: — 74.2 per cent of adults have been vaccinated once for Covid-19 — 47.3 per cent of adults have had two vaccines.

‘Thank you to everyone working incredibly hard in our vaccine rollout. When you get the call, get the jab.’ 

The figures come as official data revealed, only two people have died with the Indian Covid variant after being fully vaccinated, official figures show, raising hopes ‘freedom day’ is still on track for June. 

Public Health England analysis shows only 177 out of 5,599 people — three per cent — who caught the mutant strain and presented to A&E had already had both jabs. Almost 3,400 had not yet had their first dose.

The figures show of the 12 people who have died with the variant in England by May 25, eight were unvaccinated, two had a first dose, and two had both doses of a vaccine.  

Other promising data showing the success of the jab blitz shows the average age of people testing positive is now just 29, the youngest ever recorded and down from 41 at the start of the year. If the trend stays the same, But plans to go ahead with ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21 hang in the balance because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant, with cautious scientists calling for ministers to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality.  

The fast-spreading B.1.617.2 strain is now behind up to three quarters of all cases in the UK, and has been found in more than 250 of England’s 300-plus authorities. 

Ministers are working to scrap social distancing but keep face masks and work from home guidance in place after June 21. 

The Treasury is said to be prioritising the end of the ‘one metre plus’ rule and the ‘rule of six’ indoors, in a bid to kickstart the British economy which has been battered by successive lockdowns since March last year.

Though the Government wants to end restrictions on mass gatherings to allow festivals, concerts and sporting events to go ahead, ministers are said to be worried that the variant could jeopardise the roadmap and are discussing contingency plans that would mean only a partial end to shutdown. 

A Sage member today said the ‘confusion’ over the Government’s handling of Covid restrictions is undermining efforts to control the virus. 

Professor Stephen Reicher, a psychologist on the Sage sub-committee advising ministers on behavioural science, said the Government is in a ‘pickle’ because it appears to have abandoned the ‘data not dates’ principle.

Experts have argued that restrictions should remain in place until more people have received both doses of a vaccine, amid reports that ministers are drawing up plans for a partial end of lockdown. 

A Treasury source told the Times the Government is prepared for the worst-case scenario that the Indian variant led to a surge in hospital cases, pointing to the fact that the furlough scheme continues until September.

But in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus, face coverings could still be required on public transport and in indoor public spaces – while guidance stating people must work from home if they can may also stay in place.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose administration has come under intense scrutiny this week after former No10 aide Dominic Cummings made a series of allegations during a seven-hour evidence session with MPs, is expected to make a decision on which curbs can be relaxed in the next two weeks. 

Public Health England analysis shows of the 12 people who have died with the variant in the country, eight were unvaccinated, two had a first dose, and two had both doses of a vaccine

Public Health England analysis shows of the 12 people who have died with the variant in the country, eight were unvaccinated, two had a first dose, and two had both doses of a vaccine

Public Health England analysis shows of the 12 people who have died with the variant in the country, eight were unvaccinated, two had a first dose, and two had both doses of a vaccine

More promising data from PHE show that the effects of the variant on vaccinated people are significantly less – out of 5,599 cases only 177 were found to be in people who had had both doses, and only one out of 43 hospital admissions was. Infections, hospitalisations and deaths were all significantly more common in unvaccinated people

More promising data from PHE show that the effects of the variant on vaccinated people are significantly less – out of 5,599 cases only 177 were found to be in people who had had both doses, and only one out of 43 hospital admissions was. Infections, hospitalisations and deaths were all significantly more common in unvaccinated people

More promising data from PHE show that the effects of the variant on vaccinated people are significantly less – out of 5,599 cases only 177 were found to be in people who had had both doses, and only one out of 43 hospital admissions was. Infections, hospitalisations and deaths were all significantly more common in unvaccinated people

NHS Test and Trace data yesterday showed the majority of people testing positive for Covid in the UK were in the younger age brackets

NHS Test and Trace data yesterday showed the majority of people testing positive for Covid in the UK were in the younger age brackets

NHS Test and Trace data yesterday showed the majority of people testing positive for Covid in the UK were in the younger age brackets

Plans to go ahead with 'Freedom Day' on June 21 hang in the balance because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant, with cautious scientists calling for ministers to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality. Pictured: People enjoy punt tours along the River Cam in Cambridge today

Plans to go ahead with 'Freedom Day' on June 21 hang in the balance because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant, with cautious scientists calling for ministers to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality. Pictured: People enjoy punt tours along the River Cam in Cambridge today

Plans to go ahead with ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21 hang in the balance because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant, with cautious scientists calling for ministers to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality. Pictured: People enjoy punt tours along the River Cam in Cambridge today

Britons enjoy the sunshine and paddle in the sea in Bournemouth as temperatures begin to rise across the UK

Britons enjoy the sunshine and paddle in the sea in Bournemouth as temperatures begin to rise across the UK

Britons enjoy the sunshine and paddle in the sea in Bournemouth as temperatures begin to rise across the UK

People arrive to the seaside resort of Lyme Regis in Dorset today as the country enjoys rising temperatures

People arrive to the seaside resort of Lyme Regis in Dorset today as the country enjoys rising temperatures

People arrive to the seaside resort of Lyme Regis in Dorset today as the country enjoys rising temperatures

Cautious scientists have called for No10 to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality for at least two months, giving the NHS more time to fully vaccinate millions more adults.

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there was ‘a good argument for caution until such time as we’ve got a much higher proportion of the population double-vaccinated’.

Why are hospital admissions going up if so many people have been vaccinated? 

Admissions were bound to creep up when restrictions were eased because the virus would spread easier, experts warned. The extra-transmissibility of the Indian variant has meant outbreaks are growing quicker than expected in some hotspots.

Vaccines have severed the link between getting infected and becoming severely ill, meaning hospitals should not be overwhelmed by any future resurgence of the disease.

But no jab is perfect. Therefore, the link has not been completely broken and admissions will still rise if infections are able to spiral.

However, ministers have been given hope by early signs that the patients being admitted tend to be younger and unvaccinated, offering proof that the jabs – deployed to the oldest residents first – can keep any third wave under control.

Scientists calling for a delay of lockdown-easing measures say ministers should wait for more people to have had both doses so that the country has more immunity against the disease. Two jabs offer more protection than just a single one. Fewer than half of Britain’s adult population are fully vaccinated.

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Meanwhile Sir Tim Gowers, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, said the downside of being ‘a bit more cautious’ was a lot smaller than the downside of getting it wrong.

It comes as a Government advisor today said scientists advising ministers on vaccines are likely to set out a ‘range of options’ on the potential immunisation of children against coronavirus.

Asked about Israel, which waited until 70 per cent of the population had received two doses before opening up, Prof Hayward told the BBC: ‘It’s still going to be a few weeks yet until we’ve got all of the highly clinically vulnerable double-vaccinated and that will probably coincide with the plans to open up more fully. 

‘When we do open up more fully, instead of [cases of the Indian variant] doubling every week, it’s likely to double more frequently than that. I think there is a good argument for caution until such time as we’ve got a much higher proportion of the population double-vaccinated.’

Analysis suggests a single dose of the jab is only around 33 per cent effective at blocking symptoms of Covid in patients infected with the Indian variant, compared to about 50 per cent for the once-dominant Kent strain. 

Admissions have started to creep up across Britain, rising by 30 per cent in a week to 134. Figures will get even higher over the next few weeks because of the lag between getting infected and becoming severely ill.

MPs pile pressure on Boris Johnson to stick to June 21 timetable for reopening the country

Boris Johnson was warned last night not to ‘steal our summer’ after he admitted he might delay the end of lockdown.

With some scientists sounding the alarm over the rise of the Indian variant, business leaders, hospitality chiefs and senior MPs told the Prime Minister to stick to his Covid roadmap.

They warned that delaying the full lifting of restrictions on June 21 would be ‘devastating’ for the economy, just as consumer confidence was flooding back.

And they said traders could go bust if social distancing or other curbs were kept for longer than necessary.

But Mr Johnson yesterday cautioned ‘we may need to wait’ even though he ‘didn’t see anything in the data’ to justify not sticking to June 21.

William Lees-Jones, who owns a brewery and pub chain in the North West, said his message was: ‘Don’t steal our summer, Boris.’ 

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But hospital bosses in the worst-hit towns insist jabs have changed the game, with barely any infected patients who need medical care having been fully vaccinated.

Deaths have stayed flat, however. Just 10 victims were recorded on Friday, up from nine last Friday. It can take several weeks before any spike in admissions leads to an uptick in fatalities but scientists are also confident that the UK’s vaccination roll-out will stop thousands from dying in an inevitable third surge. 

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said deciding whether to vaccinate children is a ‘complicated’ issue.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on this morning, Professor Reicher said: ‘I think we are in a pickle of the Government’s own making at the moment.

‘I think the reason for that is it has departed from its own mantra of ‘data not dates’. Very quickly ‘data not dates’ became ‘dates not data’.

‘People were promised that things would happen on particular dates and they invested so much in them, and the Government invested so much political capital in them, that it became very difficult to do anything else if the data suggested it was unwise.’

Current data suggests that, although hospital admissions are rising in some parts of the country affected by the Indian variant, overall admissions remain broadly flat.

Meanwhile, the reproduction number – the R value – for England is 1 to 1.1, up from 0.9 and 1.1 the previous week, suggesting the epidemic is growing.

Professor Reicher said: ‘The data we are seeing at the moment suggests we have a problem.

‘We don’t know how big the problem is – it might be bad, it might be very bad, we will learn in the next week or two.

‘But the problem for the Government is on the one hand it can’t delay what it has been promising for so long, but on the other hand it is aware of the dangers of so doing.

‘And so you see that in the fact that they are beginning to act in a rather contradictory way.

‘They’re saying to us, for instance, on travel, ‘You can travel internationally but please don’t’.

‘They say of social contact ‘You can hug, but please don’t hug’. They say of restrictions ‘No restrictions but please don’t go in and out of the hotspots’.

‘That contradiction, that sense of confusion, I think is undermining the response.’

He warned that it would be a ‘big blow’ to the country’s recovery if a ‘third wave’ was to force it ‘backwards’.

‘I think it’s really important to take the data really seriously and act as strongly as we can to make sure that what at the moment is a potential crisis doesn’t turn into a real crisis,’ he added.

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PHE data shows how Covid outbreaks are growing across the country. The map on the left shows how around half of England’s 149 upper-tier authorities saw infection rates grow compared to the week before, with areas shaded red witnessing at least a 50 per cent spike in infections. Councils coloured green saw fewer positive tests than the week before. Meanwhile, the map on the right shows exactly the same but for the previous seven-day spell ending May 16

Separate data today revealed that there was around 49,000 people infected in England on any given day in the week ending May 22 - a similar figure to the week before. The Office for National Statistics, which carries out a huge surveillance testing project that is closely watched by ministers, said rates 'continue to be low but there are potential signs of an increase'. Other health chiefs say data nationally may be being skewed by extra testing in hotspots

Separate data today revealed that there was around 49,000 people infected in England on any given day in the week ending May 22 - a similar figure to the week before. The Office for National Statistics, which carries out a huge surveillance testing project that is closely watched by ministers, said rates 'continue to be low but there are potential signs of an increase'. Other health chiefs say data nationally may be being skewed by extra testing in hotspots

Separate data today revealed that there was around 49,000 people infected in England on any given day in the week ending May 22 – a similar figure to the week before. The Office for National Statistics, which carries out a huge surveillance testing project that is closely watched by ministers, said rates ‘continue to be low but there are potential signs of an increase’. Other health chiefs say data nationally may be being skewed by extra testing in hotspots

Asked about the next step in lockdown easing in England on June 21, Professor Gowers said he did not believe the plans were necessarily at risk, but urged caution.

‘Because Boris Johnson has made a big thing about all the steps being irreversible, I think he’s put himself in a position where once he takes a step, he’ll be extremely reluctant to reverse because that would be a big U-turn, an embarrassing climbdown,’ he said.

‘So I think if that’s the way you’re going to play things, then you should be very, very cautious about every step you take … And maybe everything [will] be OK, maybe the number of people who are vaccinated will be just enough … ‘R’ will broadly speaking stay below one even with Indian variants.

‘But if it’s not OK, we know, because of mathematics, that things will get bad very, very quickly. Or at least, maybe it won’t look that quick to start with, but it’ll grow exponentially. So it’ll pick up speed and become a big problem.’

It comes as scientists predicted Greater Manchester and Bedfordshire are likely to become Covid hotspots in the coming weeks, as cases continue to surge in areas where the Indian variant is rife. 

A map by Imperial College London Covid experts suggests more boroughs of Greater Manchester – including the city itself, Bury and Burnley – will see infections spike in the first weeks of June. Blackburn, Bolton and Rossendale are already hotspots in the North West, which has the highest rates in the country, it shows.

Nationally, however, a major swab-testing survey found there were fewer than 50,000 people infected with Covid on any given day in England last week with just one in 1,120 testing positive. 

Despite being similar to the previous estimate, the weekly Office for National Statistics report said: ‘There are potential signs of an increase in the two weeks ending 22 May.’

 It comes as surge testing is being expanded across Lancashire including Burnley, Pendle, Hyndburn and Rossendale – including for people who do not have symptoms – after a number of cases of the variant were detected. 

The Department of Health and Social Care said that NHS Test and Trace was working in partnership with local authorities to launch additional testing and genomic sequencing across these areas.

Additional mobile testing units and PCR tests are being deployed to higher educational settings in these areas while door-to-door testing is also taking place to find and isolate cases, it added.

People who tested positive for the Indian variant have been told to self-isolate and their contacts are being identified. Councils will confirm the areas where additional testing will be offered in their boroughs ‘shortly’ and will also contact residents directly to ensure people come forward for testing, it added.

Along with increased testing in the Lancashire boroughs, so-called ‘enhanced contact tracing’, where tracers look back over an extended period of time to determine the route of transmission, will be used for those who test positive for a variant of concern.

People who have symptoms can book free tests online or by phone, while those without symptoms are advised to visit their local council’s website for more information.

The Department for Health said: ‘The Government and its scientific experts are closely monitoring the evolving situation and rates of variants, and we will not hesitate to take additional action as necessary.’

The latest surge testing comes after it emerged that 6,959 cases of the Indian variant had been confirmed in the UK up to May 26, a rise of 3,535 on the previous week.  Meanwhile, No10’s top advisers said the R rate of the virus is at least 1.0 in England, meaning the outbreak is growing again. It is the first time since January the figure has been higher than one. 

Public Health England (PHE) said the local areas most affected by the Indian variant of coronavirus continued to be Bolton, Bedford and Blackburn with Darwen, which have seen 1,354, 366 and 361 confirmed cases respectively.

Seven further areas in England have more than 100 confirmed cases of the Indian variant: Leicester (197), Sefton (175), Nottingham (158), Wigan (113), Central Bedfordshire (109), Manchester (105) and Hillingdon (102), PHE added.

Kirklees, Burnley, Rossendale, Blackburn, Bury, Manchester and Bolton are marked as the highest risk areas in the North West of England

Kirklees, Burnley, Rossendale, Blackburn, Bury, Manchester and Bolton are marked as the highest risk areas in the North West of England

Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow, Clackmannanshire and Midlothian were considered highest risk in Scotland

Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow, Clackmannanshire and Midlothian were considered highest risk in Scotland

The map shows the following areas in darkest orange, marking the highest likelihood of them becoming a hotspot: (left) Kirklees, Burnley, Rossendale, Blackburn, Bury, Manchester and Bolton; (right) Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow, Clackmannanshire and Midlothian

Possible hotspots in May
Possible hotspots in June
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MAY LEFT; JUNE RIGHT: Imperial College London researchers predicted that more parts of Greater Manchester will see a rise in Covid infections, as well as Bedfordshire, to become England’s hotspots in June. Cases may also increase in the West Midlands, parts of London and the South East and in Canterbury, the map suggests

Department of Health bosses posted another 4,182 positive tests, up by almost half on last Friday’s count. It is the most reported in a single day for nearly eight weeks, since the 4,479 on April 1. Almost 75 per cent of all new cases are now the Indian variant.

Ministers always expected cases to increase when restrictions were eased, and they believe vaccines will stop the NHS from being overwhelmed once again.  

Imperial’s map analyses trends in positive coronavirus tests to try and work out the probability of certain areas seeing an outbreak in the near future.

It works out hotspots by estimating how likely it is that a place’s infection rate will rise above a certain threshold, which changes depending on the size of the national outbreak.

Areas that have a 75 to 100 per cent probability of having the above-threshold rate are the predicted hotspots.

Its furthest ahead prediction now suggests that, by June 13, Bedford, Kirklees, Manchester, Bury, Bolton, Rossendale, Blackburn and Burnley are all highly likely to be hotspots.

Others that might be include most other boroughs of Greater Manchester, as well as Leicester, Birmingham, Worcester, Reading, Kingston upon Thames, Lambeth and Canterbury. 

The ONS report found that there are still only 0.09 per cent of people testing positive for the coronavirus across England, but there are potential signs of an increase since early May, when the percentage was 0.07 per cent.

Across the country signals show a mixed bag, with an apparent rise in cases in the East of England but a decline in the South East.  

The trend for all other regions was ‘uncertain’, the ONS said.

Because the positive test rates are so low it can be particularly different to work out trends over time, the statisticians said. 

This is because small clusters can have a large effect on the overall rate of infection even if they don’t mean there’s a full-blown outbreak in an area.

Only 109 people out of 136,000 tested positive in the most recent survey.   

Yorkshire and the Humber had the highest proportion of people of any region in England likely to test positive for coronavirus in the week to May 22: around one in 610.

Both the South West and South East had the lowest estimate at around one in 2,900.

England's R rate - the number of people infected by each coronavirus case - has risen back above one meaning the national outbreak is probably increasing in size again, which was expected to happen as lockdown rules are lifted

England's R rate - the number of people infected by each coronavirus case - has risen back above one meaning the national outbreak is probably increasing in size again, which was expected to happen as lockdown rules are lifted

England’s R rate – the number of people infected by each coronavirus case – has risen back above one meaning the national outbreak is probably increasing in size again, which was expected to happen as lockdown rules are lifted

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, pictured arriving at Downing Street, last night announced that the Indian Covid variant now makes up between half and three quarters of all cases in the UK.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, pictured arriving at Downing Street, last night announced that the Indian Covid variant now makes up between half and three quarters of all cases in the UK.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, pictured arriving at Downing Street, last night announced that the Indian Covid variant now makes up between half and three quarters of all cases in the UK.

UK regulator FINALLY approves Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose Covid vaccine – but it won’t be available until later this year 

Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose Covid vaccine has finally been authorised for use by the UK medicines regulator – but it won’t be available until later this year.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which polices the safety of drugs, today gave the jab the green light, three months after it was first submitted for approval.

No10’s vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi hailed the jab as another ‘another weapon in our arsenal to beat the pandemic’.

Trials have shown the vaccine – which US regulators approved in February – to be 67 per cent effective at blocking Covid symptoms. Other studies have shown it is even better at preventing patients falling severely ill.

Ministers originally hoped to give the jab to younger adults, with the promise of just one jab thought to appeal to twenty-somethings desperate to return to some degree of normality.

However, the vaccine works in a similar way to AstraZeneca’s and has been linked to blood clots. Belgium yesterday stopped offering the J&J jab to under-40s following the death of a woman who was given it.

Britain has ordered 20million doses but these are not expected to start arriving until mid-summer at the earliest.

Ireland, where the jab has been dished out for several weeks, has warned of ‘serious concerns’ about supply. It is thought most of the supply in EU is made in Germany.

J&J has yet to brag that its vaccine works against the Indian variant, which is growing quickly in Britain. But experts are confident it should still beat the mutant strain, with other jabs known to still be effective.

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In Wales, around one in 3,850 people was estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week to May 22.

This was up slightly from one in 4,340 in the previous week, but the percentage testing positive ‘continues to be very low, which makes it difficult to identify trends since they are more easily affected by small changes in the number of people testing positive from week to week,’ the ONS said.

In Northern Ireland there are ‘early signs of a possible increase’, with an estimate of around one in 820 people, up from one in 1,550 in the previous week.

The estimate for Scotland is around one in 630, up from one in 1,960. All figures are for people in private households. 

As the Indian variant continues to rise in dominance in Britain, Boris Johnson has been forced to admit he might delay the end of lockdown if the situation isn’t under control by the middle of June. 

Business leaders have begged him not to ‘steal our summer’ because delaying the full lifting would be ‘devastating’ for the economy but there are concerns a devastating third wave will happen.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng insisted it was ‘impossible’ to know how the situation would unfold over the next fortnight.

He said ‘there’s nothing in the data that suggests we should move the day’ but refused to rule out local lockdowns and keeping businesses closed in Indian variants hotspots such as Bolton.

Ministers are quietly confident they can press ahead with the route back to normality, given that Britain’s vaccine drive has severed the once impenetrable link between cases and hospitalisations. More than 38million adults have already had one dose, and 24million have had both. 

Matt Hancock last night announced that the Indian Covid variant now makes up between half and three quarters of all cases in the UK.

The Health Secretary said in a Downing Street press conference that the fast-spreading strain is now dominant in Britain, taking over from the Kent variant that had been the most common one since Christmas.

He said the new variant was ‘still spreading and the latest estimates are that more than half and potentially as many as three quarters of all new cases are now of this variant’.

An update from Public Health England showed there have been 6,959 cases of the strain confirmed so far, almost doubling from 3,535 this time last week. It has now been found in 252 local authorities in England out of around 300, showing it has reached most corners of the country. 

Dr Jenny Harries, chief of the UK Health Security Agency, said: ‘In most areas in England we do know that the new variant, the variant that originated in India, is taking the place of the 117 variant, so it’s something we need to watch really carefully.’

Nicola Sturgeon keeps Glasgow in Level 3 lockdown for another WEEK as daily Covid cases in Scotland hit highest since March 

Nicola Sturgeon kept Glasgow in high lockdown for another week today as she revealed that the Indian Covid variant has seen cases hit their highest since March.

The First Minister said that the country’s R rate may have risen as high as 1.3 with the new strain accounting for half of cases.

But she added that the evidence pointed to younger people – who are less likely to experience severe illness – being the most affected.

While the current outbreak in Glasgow showed signs of ‘stabilising’ she said it was too early to open it up. Instead it will stay in Level 3 for at least another week, before potentially moving to Level 2.

Glasgow is the only part of Scotland under Level 3 lockdown rules, prohibiting non-essential travel out of the area and imposing greater restrictions on socialising, hospitality and businesses.

Speaking at the coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh on Friday, the First Minister said there still needed to be a ‘reasonable degree of caution’ exercised across the country.

Case numbers, she said, are on the rise in Scotland, with Friday’s daily case number the highest since March 25.

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A weekly update from Public Health England showed tonight that Bolton in Greater Manchester remains the Indian variant hotspot by a long stretch, with 1,354 cases found there.

Second on the list was Bedford with almost 1,000 fewer than the top spot, at 366. Blackburn, Leicester, Sefton in Merseyside, Wigan, Central Bedfordshire, Manchester and Hillingdon in London have all had more than 100 cases.

While there are dozens of other places where the variant has been seen, almost half have had fewer than five positive tests each and the vast majority have had fewer than 10. 

Mr Hancock said: ‘The latest estimates are that more than half and potentially as many as three-quarters of all new cases are now of this variant.

‘As we set out our road map we always expected cases to rise, we must remain vigilant.

‘The aim, of course, is to break the link to hospitalisations and deaths so that cases alone no longer require stringent restrictions on people’s lives.’

He added: ‘The increase in cases remains focused in hotspots and we are doing all we can to tackle this variant wherever it flares up.

‘Over the past six months we now have built a huge testing capacity at our disposal and we are using this to surge testing into the eight hotspot areas and other places where the cases are lower but rising.

‘In the hotspot areas we are surging vaccines, too, for those who are eligible, in Bolton for instance we have done 17,147 vaccinations in the last week.’

Although there are concerns about the variant in Whitehall – Public Health England and SAGE are now convinced it is more infectious than the Kent strain – vaccines appear to be working well against it.

Mr Hancock said that, of 49 people in hospital with the virus in Bolton, only five had been fully vaccinated. Mathematicians said this could mean the jabs are still over 90 per cent effective against the mutated virus.      

The PHE report showed that only two people are confirmed to have died with the Indian variant after having had both of their vaccine doses. Only 177 cases out of 5,599 since February 1 were among fully vaccinated people, and only one of them was admitted to hospital. 

Dr Harries said in a statement: ‘We now know that getting both vaccine doses gives a high degree of protection against this variant and we urge everyone to have the vaccine when the NHS invites you.’ 

PHE’s report showed that, although B1617.2 had only made up around 2.5 per cent of all cases since October, since February it appeared to account for 84 per cent. 

Its report said: ‘Whilst case numbers remain very low, the proportion of cases which are VOC-21APR-02 (B.1.617.2) has continued to increase… VOC-21APR-02 is likely to be the predominant variant in England although there is regional heterogeneity [differences].’ 

Mobile testing units have been sent to areas with large numbers of cases and an extra 400,000 swab test kits have been sent to the worst-hit places, with the Army dishing them out on the streets in Bolton.

Boss at the NHS Providers union, Saffron Cordery, said the new figures were ‘deeply concerning’ and added: ‘Data on hospital cases seems to be focused amongst those patients who either haven’t been vaccinated yet or had just one vaccine. 

‘This hammers home just how important it is get fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We urge everyone to get their jabs when they’re offered them.’ 

Cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng is bullish on June 21 ‘freedom day’ saying ‘nothing in the data’ to change roadmap

Kwasi Kwarteng has insisted June 21 ‘freedom day’ is still on track despite concerns over rising Covid case rates – but stressed there are ‘no guarantees’.

The Business Secretary said there is ‘nothing in the data’ so far that suggests the schedule will need to be pushed back, even though the Indian strain is now dominant.

In a round of interviews, Mr Kwarteng pointed at the vaccine rollout and evidence that jabs still give protection against the new strain. But he also cautioned that ministers will not hesitate to change course if it is not ‘safe’ to unlock.  

Mounting questions have been asked about the government’s schedule, with the latest infection figures showing a rise of more than a fifth in a week. However, hospitalisations have not been increasing at the same pace. 

Mr Kwarteng told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Nothing I’ve seen would suggest that we should extend or delay the date of reopening. But the caveat obviously is the data can change.

‘If scientific evidence, data points to an increased hospitalisation rate, increased degree of risk then we have flexibility to move that date.

‘But as of today I can assure people there is nothing in the data that suggests to me we should move the date.’

Mr Kwarteng said that a single jab provides a ‘considerable degree of protection’, and stressed the rollout should have progressed further by June 21.

‘I don’t think we will move the date. But I can’t guarantee that… I can’t guarantee that in three and a half weeks’ time we will be able to reopen,’ he said.   

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Professor Harnden told BBC Breakfast on Saturday: ‘Clearly, with children, there are a range of different options that involve whether we select certain children to be immunised on the basis of risk.

‘We do know that the majority of children do not have huge risk of complications – whether we vaccinate for educational purposes, whether we vaccinate to protect others in the population, these are the ethical issues, there are a lot of issues to think about.

‘It’s a complicated position to decide on the immunisation of children, of course; then there’s the wider global ethical argument about the use of vaccine in children when there are other people in the world that are at risk of not being vaccinated.

‘So we need to think about all these issues; we probably will give the Government a range of options.

‘But on the whole they’ve been very good at listening to our advice, and our strategy on JCVI to date has been so good and I’m very thankful that the Government have listened to it.’

He added: ‘It’s complicated, but we will think through these issues deeply and give some really good advice.’

Professor Harnden said vaccines do help to tackle Covid transmission but ‘only to a certain extent’ and therefore ‘I don’t think we will be able to vaccinate children to prevent huge amounts of transmission within the community’.

His comments came after a JCVI source told the Daily Telegraph it is expected to set out ‘options and consequences’ of vaccinating children rather than offering a firm recommendation for ministers to follow.

The source said: ‘It’s likely that the JCVI will come up with a menu of options saying what the consequences of each of them would be, rather than making an actual recommendation.’

It follows the European Medicines Agency recommending the use of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech be extended to children aged 12 to 15.

Klaus Okkenhaug, professor of immunology in the Department of Pathology at the University of Cambridge, said the Pfizer vaccine could be a potential candidate to use on children due to its safety record.

Appearing on Times Radio, he conceded it was a ‘fair point’ when it was put to him that one or two ‘bad cases’ of vaccine side-effects could ‘spook’ a large number of people.

Professor Okkenhaug said: ‘I think the lower in age we go, the lower the risk from the virus is, then the more risk-averse we become with relation to the vaccine.’

He highlighted that, with data from the tens of millions of people who have been vaccinated, ‘if you go for children, you would want to go for the safest vaccine’.

‘And I think probably an argument could be that for children you go for the Pfizer, if that pans out, as it looks to be, (to) have an even better safety record.’

Professor Okkenhaug said the decision on whether to give children jabs is a ‘difficult question’ which requires balancing wider benefits against the direct ones for children.

‘I think for a whole population it would of course help for children to be vaccinated because it also reduces their opportunities to transmit this virus to their teachers,’ he said.

Professor Okkenhaug added that when considering the ‘direct benefits to the children’ it is ‘a little bit of a fine balance because they are so unlikely to be affected by the virus’.

‘But I think, given the phenomenal safety records of some of the vaccines out there, there’s a good argument for going ahead at least with older children, say 12 and above.’

Professor Okkenhaug said the idea of using a nasal spray to administer the Covid vaccine to children was ‘really interesting’, with the approach used before for flu vaccines, but there was a current lack of data. 

Link hienalouca.com

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