Indian variant cases double in a week but hospital admissions remain flat
Confirmed cases of the Indian variant of Covid-19 have doubled in a week to reach almost 7,000, although hospital admissions remain broadly flat, data shows.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a Downing Street press conference that up to three-quarters of new coronavirus cases were the Indian variant, though he stressed that the vaccines were having an effect on keeping people out of hospital.
He 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.”
New data from Public Health England (PHE) shows 6,959 cases of the Indian variant of coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK.
The figures are up to May 26, and represent a rise of 3,535 on the previous week.
In England, 6,180 cases have been confirmed, along with 702 in Scotland, 58 in Wales and 19 in Northern Ireland.
The local areas most affected by the Indian variant of coronavirus continue to be Bolton, Bedford and Blackburn with Darwen.
Seven further areas in England have more than 100 confirmed cases of the variant: Leicester, Sefton, Nottingham, Wigan, Central Bedfordshire, Manchester and Hillingdon.
Mr Hancock said the increase in cases of the Indian variant remained focused in “hotspots” where surge testing and vaccinations were taking place.
“The increase in cases remains focused in hotspots and we are doing all we can to tackle this variant wherever it flares up,” he said.
He added that of the 49 people in hospital with coronavirus in Bolton, only five have had both doses of vaccine.
“So when you get the call, get the jab, and make sure you come forward for your second doses so you can get the maximum possible protection,” he said.
“The vaccine is severing the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths from coronavirus.”
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said public health experts “are actively going out and finding cases so we do expect cases to rise”, plus cases were expected to go up through increased socialising.
She told the briefing that when looking at patterns of cases, such as in London, “we’ve seen a bit of community transmission and then it’s closed down again”.
She said it was “on the cusp at the moment” over whether rising cases reflected the variant taking off or whether there was a rise because more cases are being hunted for and detected.
“On the good news, of course, we are not seeing that generally translating into increased cases of hospitalisation and definitely not into deaths,” she said.
“So the key message there is.. if we can hold it while the vaccination programme gets rolled out, we stand a much better chance of getting through this session.”
Public Health England (PHE) put the hospital admission rate for Covid-19 at 0.79 per 100,000 people in the week to May 23, compared to 0.75 per 100,000 in the previous week.
Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said: “Covid infection rates have risen across most age groups and regions, but encouragingly the number in hospitals across the country remains low.
“However, we are concerned about the outbreak of the variant first discovered in India and in some areas hospitalisations have slightly risen. This is a reminder that we still have a way to go and need to remain cautious.”
Earlier, Mr Hancock told MPs in the Commons it is too early to say whether the June 21 lifting of restrictions will go ahead.
It comes after Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose modelling was instrumental to the UK locking down in March 2020, said the Indian variant was now “the dominant strain” in the UK and the full reopening of society on June 21 “hangs in the balance”.
Asked in the Commons by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt what measures could be taken to ensure June 21 – when all legal limits on social contact are due to be lifted – could go ahead, Mr Hancock said: “It is true that 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.”
Later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters “I don’t see anything currently in the data” to divert from the June 21 target.
He added: “As I have said many times, I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map.
“But we may need to wait.
“Don’t forget the important point about the intervals between the steps of the road map – we put that five weeks between those steps to give us time to see what effect the unlockings are having.”
Elsewhere, PHE reported a new variant as being under investigation.
There have been 109 cases detected in the UK of the C.36.3 variant first detected in Thailand, in cases who had travelled from Egypt.
Scientists will carry out tests to determine whether it reaches the threshold of being a variant of concern.