Boris Johnson is being urged to hold back from further relaxations on international travel after Covid cases jumped by 40 per cent in a single day and it was confirmed a potentially more transmissible variant has arrived in the UK.
Additional control measures have been put in place after Public Health England identified at least 41 cases of the so-called “Delta plus” strain of the virus, which is feared to be more transmissible than previous variants.
The mutation has been declared a variant of concern in India, but PHE’s head of immunisation Dr Mary Ramsay said she was “not that convinced” that it has different symptoms from other Covid-19 strains.
Public health experts told The Independent that the emergence of the new strain gave extra reason for Mr Johnson to be cautious as the UK enters the final straight of its vaccination drive.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps will announce the latest update of the government’s “traffic light” system for international travel on Thursday, with Malta and Spain’s Balearic Islands tipped as possible additions to the slim “green list” of countries from which travellers can return to England without quarantine.
CBI (Confederation of British Industry) president Lord Bilimoria called on ministers to give higher priority to reopening the sector, including by waiving quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers, warning: “We can’t be first on vaccines, yet last on reopening international travel.”
But Prof Gabriel Scally of Bristol University told The Independent: “We are in a difficult position and the government has made serious errors before with international travel. They should really make sure they don’t do it again. Any relaxation at the moment would be unwise.”
And Dr Bharat Pankhania, of Exeter University’s medical centre, warned: “We need to immunise as many people as we can before we let go of restrictions. Once we have lifted restrictions, it will be very hard to re-introduce them. There are still a lot of people - particularly young people - in this country who have not been vaccinated. It is in our own self-interest to exercise caution.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi announced that the number of adults in the UK with two vaccine jabs has passed 60 per cent (31,740,115), with 82 per cent (43,448,680) receiving at least one dose. Since the age limit for inoculation was cut to 18 last week, the total of first jabs in England has reached almost half of 25-29 year olds and one-third of 18-24 year-olds.
Mr Zahawi told a Downing Street press conference that the effectiveness of vaccines was reflected in PHE data analysing around 500 recent hospital admissions with the Delta variant - first identified in India in December and now the dominant strain in the UK. Of these, some 324 involved patients who were unvaccinated, 87 with one dose and just 40 two doses, he said.
“This really does show the importance of getting the jab, and critically, getting both doses,” he said. “So our mission is now to get as many people protected as we can and protect them as quickly as we can.”
Latest official figures showed a further 16,135 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases recorded in the UK on Wednesday — the highest since 6 February, and an almost 40 per cent increase in just 24 hours.
Some 19 daily deaths were reported, bringing the UK death toll from the pandemic to 128,027.
Dr Ramsay said that new infections were running at 10,000 to 11,000 a day but hospitalisations were increasing at a much slower rate than positive cases.
“This is showing us the evidence that the vaccine is working and it’s breaking the link between cases and infection and hospitalisation,” she told the press conference.
PHE said it was investigating cases of the K417N (AY.1) variant known as Delta-plus to better understand the significance of its presence in the UK.
Enhanced contact tracing, rapid testing and isolation have been put in place in a bid to stem the spread of the mutation, while research continues to determine whether it displays greater resistance to vaccines.
Reports suggest the variant may spread more easily, bind better to lung cells and have greater resistance to antibody therapy.
The travel industry’s hopes for early addition to the green list are focused on Malta, which has recorded just one Covid infection per 100,000 residents in the past seven days.
But analysis by the PC Agency from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and Our World in Data suggested that countries meeting the UK’s own criteria would also include the US, Croatia, Canada, Italy, Germany, the Balearic Islands, Mexico, Jamaica, Finland, Poland, Morocco, Barbados and Grenada.
Lord Bilimoria said: “Despite our high vaccination rate and relatively low numbers in hospital, the UK risks being left behind as the world opens up for business and tourist travel. Of course, public health must be front of mind on any decisions.
“But we can’t be first on vaccines, yet last on reopening international travel. It is essential for trade and business travel, not just tourism, and a key component in any economic recovery.”
The CBI president said the aviation sector - which before the pandemic added more than £20bn a year to the economy - had suffered “incredibly badly” in the crisis, with a 75 per cent fall in passenger numbers in and out of the UK.
“We must build on the success of the vaccine programme by removing quarantine restrictions for those who are protected,” he said. “Without moves to open up travel in the coming days, the case for further targeted economic support for the sector will be required with urgency.”