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Indian variant threat to June freedom

■ All over-50s to get 2nd jab early ■ But Monday’s reopening still on

PLANS to end all Covid curbs next month are in jeopardy, Boris Johnson warned last night.

He said a surge in UK cases of the Indian variant meant there was a ‘real risk of disruption’ to his roadmap out of lockdown.   Hyperlink

The next step of easing will still go ahead on Monday, allowing indoor socialising and overnight stays for the first time in months. But in a sign of the Government’s anxiety, all over-50s will have their second jab fast-tracked - with the gap between doses cut from 12 weeks to eight.

‘The race between our vaccine programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter,’ said the Prime Minister . ‘And it’s more important than ever therefore that people get the additional protection of a second dose.’

The Army will be deployed to towns in the North West where the new strain is spreading fast, including Blackburn and Bolton, to help with surge testing and vaccinations.

The surge in cases will raise questions about whether ministers were fast enough to place India on the travel red list.

At a downbeat Downing Street briefing, the Prime Minister said he was ‘serving notice’ that if the spread of the variant looked set to cause a major new wave of the virus ‘we would implement further restrictions immediately’.

He added: ‘I have to level with you that this could be a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June.’

The warning followed a gloomy assessment by Government scientists. The Sage committee said there was a ‘realistic possibility’ that the Indian variant would prove to be 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain that now dominates in the UK.

At this level, the committee said even pressing ahead with the easing of restrictions at the start of next week would ‘lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)’.

The warning came as:

■ Figures showed cases have quadrupled in Bolton in a fortnight;

■ Mr Johnson warned the ‘green list’ of quarantine-free destinations was likely to remain ‘tiny’;

■ Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the Indian strain was likely to become ‘dominant’;

■ Mr Johnson urged people to sign up for free twice-weekly testing;

■ Professor Whitty said the fast-tracking of ten million second jabs would not delay the rollout of first doses to younger age groups;

■ Wales delayed its easing of lockdown measures;

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■ Glasgow and Moray will not join the rest of mainland Scotland in easing restrictions on Monday;

■ Germany classified Britain as a coronavirus ‘risk area’;

■ The UK recorded 17 Covid deaths and 2,193 more cases;

■ Cases in England fell 11 per cent last week with just one in 1,340 people now infected, the lowest level since August, Office for National Statistics figures showed.

* Portugal confirmed it would welcome British tourists next week.

On Monday, Mr Johnson said he hoped to set out plans by the end of this month to end all social distancing, including the one-metre rule, on June 21.

On Thursday lunchtime he said he saw ‘nothing in the data’ to suggest that the roadmap would be knocked off course.

But, following crisis talks with Professor Whitty, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and senior ministers on Thursday evening, he accepted that his plans might have to be delayed.

Mr Johnson said: ‘I am told that if it’s only marginally more transmissible, we can continue more or less as planned. But if the virus is significantly more transmissible, we are likely to face some hard choices.’

A Government source said even a surge in cases might not delay the lockdown easing, provided it did not result in a fresh wave of hospitalisations and deaths.

Any delay would be a major blow to businesses and families hoping for a return to normal.

Mark Harper, chairman of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said ministers should be more confident in the jab rollout.

Labour health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said that delays to placing India on the travel red list amounted to a ‘reckless failure’ by ministers.

The move came only at the end of April, when Mr Johnson finally abandoned a planned visit because of surging cases.

On April 16, official cases in India stood at 136 per million, six times the rate in neighbouring Pakistan which was placed on the red list.

Sage fears strain is 50% more infectious

THE Indian variant of Covid-19 is up to 50 per cent more infectious than the Kent strain and is likely to cause a devastating third wave, Government scientists believe.

Sage, the Government’s scientific advisory group, concluded that returning to normal on June 21 risks a peak that is ‘double that seen in January 2021’ because of the variant.

In a bleak document published last night, Sage said evidence suggests it is ‘a realistic possibility that the strain is as much as 50 per cent more transmissible’. The group said that the significant lifting of restrictions on June 21 risks overwhelming the NHS and the third wave of cases, likely in July and August, would be ‘similar to, or larger than, previous peaks’.

This is because most young adults are yet to be vaccinated and the vaccine is not 100 per cent effective at preventing infection, meaning the virus would spread rapidly through millions who lack immunity, causing a surge in infections, hospital cases and deaths.

The Kent variant which drove the second wave is itself is around 50 per cent more infectious than the original strain of Covid-19 from Wuhan in China .