Boris Johnson says the country faces “hard choices” if evidence of the variant’s rapid transmissibility continues to grow.
“There is a range of things we could do; we are ruling nothing out,” he said – amid rumours that ministers are once more considering localised lockdowns to allow the reopening to continue in unaffected areas.
Scientific advisers to the government already believe there is a “realistic possibility” that it the Indian variant is 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant, and that the further easing of restrictions planned for Monday could lead to a “substantial resurgence of hospitalisations”.
Mike Hawking, head of policy at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), said past attempts to contain localised hotspots, which were largely focused in England’s more deprived cities and towns, “weren’t necessarily successful in suppressing the spread of the virus”.
“Simply closing down some aspects of a local economy again in a different way doesn’t change the fact that there are more groups of people in these areas who still have to go out to work because they work in those frontline key services or odd jobs,” he said.
Downing Street has indicated that it intends to push ahead with Step 3 of the roadmap out of lockdown. But although national infections have spiked in some parts of England, such as Greater Manchester, hospital admissions have yet to follow suit.
“It’s early days and we will now see what happens over the next two to three weeks,” said chief medical officer Chris Whitty during Friday’s press conference.
The PM said that the new variant could “pose a serious disruption” to the UK’s progress, as he announced plans to accelerate the administration of second doses in over-50s but rejected calls by local leaders to open up vaccinations to all adults in hotspots.
By Thursday (13 May) a total of 1,313 cases of the variant had been detected in England – up from 520 recorded in the previous week.
Its rising prevalence in places such as Blackburn, Bolton and parts of London has also generated concern that the variant may come to have a greater impact among the country’s poorer communities once restrictions are eased from next week.
Nationally, cases of both the Kent and India variant already appear to be increasing at a slightly quicker rate in more deprived areas, according to analysis conducted by Colin Angus, a health inequalities modeller at the University of Sheffield.
The picture remains “quite mixed” for now but could change, particularly if the variant is allowed to further spread among the country’s unprotected age cohorts.
Millions of under-45s have yet to receive a first dose – enough to fuel another wave that could place the NHS under “unsustainable pressure”, according to Sage.
In Bolton, where the variant is thought to be freely circulating, infection rates are highest in the town’s most deprived areas. However, the vast majority of new cases are being diagnosed in younger people, who are less likely to have been vaccinated: 183.9 per 100,000 for those under 60, but just 43 per 100,000 for those over.
The PM said the army would be deployed to Bolton and Blackburn to hand out tests, as surge-testing efforts continue.
In total, the variant has now been detected in at least 15 areas of England, where councils and Public Health England (PHE) officials are working to contain any clusters.
“At this stage it is too early to be talking about widespread regional restrictions in any case,” said Mr Angus. “These remain isolated outbreaks. I think better test and trace, more funding for the local public health teams, and surge vaccinations all make a lot of sense.”
The JRF’s Mike Hawking believes tiered restrictions would force targeted communities and their local populations further into economic hardship.
That view was echoed by newly re-elected Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who said: “My heart sank when I heard the prime minister talk of local lockdowns. That really can’t be the answer. We’ve lived under local lockdowns pretty much for the last nine months, and it’s caused real damage to people’s lives.”
Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subgroup on behavioural science, said it was a “big risk to open up indoors on Monday” in light of the new variant.
“There is a strong argument for delaying the relaxation, or at the very least proceeding with our foot hovering over the brake pedal and being prepared to reverse the reopening if we discover significant vaccine escape and increased seriousness,” he said.