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Boris Johnson to hold 5pm Covid press conference amid growing concerns over Indian variant

Boris Johnson will hold his first press conference in two weeks today amid growing concerns about the Indian coronavirus variant. 

The Prime Minister is due to appear in Downing Street’s new briefing room at 5pm after coming under fire for taking too long to ban travel to India.  

No10 only announced India was being added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ yesterday, and the measures don’t start until 4am on Friday. Thousands of people will arrive in Britain from India before the restrictions come into effect. 

Some 103 cases of the variant have been identified in the UK so far, most of which were linked to foreign travel. The PM has had to cancel a visit to India next week.

It is feared B.1.617, as it’s called, spreads more easily than older strains and has mutations which help it evade vaccines – but to what degree remains unclear. 

Anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen will be banned from entering the country if they have been in India in the previous 10 days. British nationals will need to isolate in a quarantine hotel. 

The move has sparked a ‘desperate frenzy’ by families trying to beat the Friday deadline and avoid having to quarantine, travel agents said today.

A standard £400 economy ticket from India to the UK has soared to £2,000 due to a shortage of seats on planes over the next three days.

Suresh Kumar, chairman of Indra Travel, told The Telegraph most Britons trying to return are in India on emergency visas for family funerals or weddings or on business, as well as students.  

As Brits scramble to get back to the UK, travellers have complained of two-hour queues at border control at Heathrow Airport, where five flights from India are due to arrive today.

Labour slammed the Government for not banning arrivals immediately despite the Indian variant being under investigation by UK officials for almost three weeks.

Sir Patrick Vallance’s predecessor admitted ministers were too slow to respond to the new B.1.617 strain claiming the ban was ‘taken a bit too late in truth’. 

Tonight’s press conference will be Mr Johnson’s first in a fortnight. He is expected to give a general update about the UK’s Covid crisis and vaccination programme. 

The PM faces growing calls to ease lockdown quicker after there were just four Covid deaths yesterday – the lowest in seven months – and the jab drive hit the milestone of fully vaccinating 10million Brits. A total of 33m have had at least one injection.

Boris Johnson will hold a press conference tonight amid growing concerns about the Indian coronavirus variant

No10 only announced India was being added to the UK's travel 'red list' yesterday, and the measures won't come into until 4am on Friday. Indian is suffering a devastating second wave

No10 only announced India was being added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ yesterday, and the measures won’t come into until 4am on Friday. Indian is suffering a devastating second wave

The Covid variants circulating in the UK:  Matt Hancock revealed yesterday that 103 cases of the Indian variant had been picked up in Britain, but Public Health England's site has not been updated. It still says there have been 77 infections

The Covid variants circulating in the UK:  Matt Hancock revealed yesterday that 103 cases of the Indian variant had been picked up in Britain, but Public Health England’s site has not been updated. It still says there have been 77 infections

A health worker collects a swab from a policeman in Bhopal, the capital city of India's Madhya Pradesh state

A health worker collects a swab from a policeman in Bhopal, the capital city of India’s Madhya Pradesh state

The variant was first identified internationally in October and detected in the UK on February 22.

Two key mutations set it apart from others – named E484Q and L452R – with both of them found on the ‘spike’ that the virus uses to latch onto human cells. 

These are not thought to be key mutations of any of the other variants on Public Health England’s list, but have appeared in virus samples before. 

Those alterations are thought to make the virus more transmissible, and lab studies suggest it can escape antibodies – a key part of the body’s Covid immune response.  

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIA VARIANT? 

Real name: B.1.617

When and where was it discovered? The variant was first reported as being of concern by the Indian government in late March. 

The first cases in India appear to date back to October 2020 and it was first detected in Britain in February. 

What mutations does it have? It has 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China – but the two main ones are named E484Q and L452R.

Scientists suspect these two alterations can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants. 

Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines? 

The L452R mutation is also found on the Californian variant (B.1.429), discovered in December, even though the two evolved independently.

L452R is believed to make the American strain about 20 per cent more infectious. 

The Indian variant’s E484Q mutation is very similar to the one found in the South African and Brazil variants known as E484K, which can help the virus evade antibodies.

The South African variant is thought to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at stopping infections, but it’s not clear what effect it has on severe illness. 

Should we be worried?

Scientists are unsure how transmissible or vaccine-resistant the Indian variant is because the E484Q mutation is new and not well understood.

The fact it appears to have increased infectivity should not pose an immediate threat to the UK’s situation, because the current dominant Kent version appears equally or more transmissible. 

It will take a variant far more infectious strain than that to knock it off the top spot.

However, if the Indian version proves to be effective at slipping past vaccine-gained immunity, then its prevalence could rise in Britain as the immunisation programme squashes the Kent variant. 

The UK currently classes the Indian strain as a ‘Variant Under Investigation’, a tier below the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants. 

Experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’.

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said it’s still not clear if India’s third wave has been caused by the new variant, or if it emerged at the same time by coincidence. 

How deadly is it?

Again, scientists still don’t know for sure – but they are fairly certain it won’t be more deadly than the current variants in circulation in Britain.  

This is because Covid gets no evolutionary benefit by evolving to become more deadly. 

The virus wants to spread as much as possible and so it needs people to be alive and interacting with others for as long as possible to achieve this. 

And if other variants are anything to go by, the Indian strain should not be more lethal.

There is still no evidence to show dominant versions like the Kent and South African variants are more deadly than the original Covid strain. 

How many people in the UK have been infected with it? Matt Hancock revealed there had been 103 cases so far.

But Public Health England’s latest report, published on April 15, says 77. These were detected in England and Scotland.

But because the E484Q mutation is rare, scientists aren’t sure to what degree it will change the way the virus behaves.

Sharon Peacock, the head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it was unclear whether the variant was directly behind India’s devastating second wave.

She highlighted that the Kent variant took off in the UK within weeks of emerging last winter, whereas the Indian variant has been in circulation since last October.  

It suggests India may have suffered its latest wave regardless of which coronavirus was dominant at the time.

But Professor Peacock claimed there was enough concern to warrant slowing the number of cases coming into the UK.

‘This is an important step in controlling further introduction of this variant into the UK,’ she said.

‘The number of B.1.617 genomes detected in the UK has risen in the last three weeks.

‘Even though this is at or less than 1 per cent of the genomes sequenced in the UK overall, the upward trend in cases warrants action whilst ongoing uncertainties over the level of threat posed by this variant are evaluated.’

She said scientists were also unsure whether the mutations mean the variant can evade the effectiveness of vaccines or natural immunity. 

The Indian variant’s E484Q mutation is very similar to the one found in the South African and Brazil variants known as E484K, which can help the virus evade antibodies.

The South African variant is thought to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at stopping infections, but it’s not clear what effect it has on severe illness. 

Professor Peacock said more work was needed to determine whether the Indian variant should move from being one under investigation, as at present, to a variant of concern.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the Government, said he was confident the jab is more transmissible than other strains based on spiralling case numbers in India. 

He also admitted the ban on travel from the country had come too late. 

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘These decisions are almost inevitably taken a bit too late, in truth, but what’s absolutely clear is that this variant is more transmissible in India.

‘You can see that it’s becoming the dominant variant, and the other concern about it is that it has a second change in the spike protein which may mean that it’s able to be a bit more effective at escaping an immune response, either a natural one or vaccine-induced one, so there’s good reasons for wanting to keep it out of the country if at all possible.

‘What we need to do is get the population vaccinated and also get booster vaccines prepared that will be able to deal with these new variants – so buying time … against these new variants is really important.’

Potentially thousands of people will arrive in Britain from India this week before the ‘red list’ travel restrictions come into effect on Friday.

Seven flights from the country arrived at Heathrow airport yesterday, with at least 16 scheduled to land before the tighter rules come into place. 

Flights run by BA, Virgin Atlantic and Air India are due from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. 

Before Friday, travellers from India will have to provide a negative coronavirus test in the three days before flying and then quarantine at home in the UK for ten days. Arrivals can use public transport to travel to their quarantine destination.

From Friday, only British or Irish nationals, or those with UK residence rights, can enter on flights from India. They will have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days.

Earlier this year, amid concerns about the Kent variant, India limited flights between the countries to 30 a week, compared with almost 70 previously. 

Suresh Kumar, chairman of Indra Travel, a family firm he set up 42 years ago, told The Telegraph that ticket prices had soared up to five times as Brits rush to avoid quarantining in a hotel when they return.

He said: ‘It’s become very busy and flights are not available due to the demand. Prices are four or five times what they were last week.

‘A normal £400 economy seat from Delhi is [now] anything up to £2,000. Even if you go for business or first class, there are not many around. They are over £3,000. There was concern India was going to be added but it was still quite a shock. People are concerned and desperate to get back and in a frenzy.’

Labour slammed No10 for delaying the India ban, claiming that it had put British lives in danger and risked sparking more outbreaks of the variant at home.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symond telling LBC on Monday: ‘As Labour has warned for months, failing to introduce strong protections at the border has left us exposed to mutations of the virus, which has now lead to dangerous outbreaks in the UK.

‘It is not good enough to try and shut the door after the horse has bolted, by adding countries onto a red list when it is too late. What’s needed is an urgent comprehensive hotel quarantine system.’

Meanwhile Labour chairwoman, Yvette Cooper, said the variant had been under investigation for almost three weeks.

She told The Times: ‘The India variant has been under investigation for almost three weeks and other neighbouring countries with lower rates of infection were added to the red list ten days ago.’  

Yesterday Matt Hancock told MPs that the government had made the ‘difficult’ decision to place India in the highest level of restrictions from 4am on Friday. 

Hundreds set to fly in before ban begins 

Hundreds of people will arrive in Britain from India this week before the ‘red list’ travel restrictions come into effect on Friday.

Seven flights from the country arrived at Heathrow airport yesterday, with at least 16 scheduled to land before the tighter rules come into place.

Flights run by BA, Virgin Atlantic and Air India are due from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

Before Friday, travellers from India will have to provide a negative coronavirus test in the three days before flying and then quarantine at home in the UK for ten days. Arrivals can use public transport to travel to their quarantine destination.

From Friday, only British or Irish nationals, or those with UK residence rights, can enter on flights from India. They will have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days.

Earlier this year, amid concerns about the Kent variant, India limited flights between the countries to 30 a week, compared with almost 70 previously. 

Mr Hancock claimed the ‘vast majority’ of cases in the UK were linked to international travel. He said: ‘After studying the data and on a precautionary basis we have made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list.’

Figures show there are now more than 200,000 confirmed Covid cases a day in India.  

Yesterday, a joint statement from the British and Indian government said Boris Johnson’s trip – already scaled back – will not go ahead next week ‘in light of the current situation’. 

Mr Hancock said the latest move means ‘anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen cannot enter the UK if they’ve been in India in the previous 10 days’. 

‘UK and Irish residents and British citizens who have been in India in the past 10 days before their arrival will need to complete hotel quarantine for 10 days from the time of arrival.’

He added: ‘India is a country I know well and love. Between our two countries we have ties of friendship and family. I understand the impact of this decision but I hope the House will concur that we must act.’

The news comes after an expert warned the Indian coronavirus variant could ‘pose a threat’ to Mr Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown. 

Professor Danny Altmann, an Imperial College London immunologist, said there were vaccinated vulnerable Britons who could ‘still be caught out by variants like this’. 

PHE currently lists it as a ‘variant under investigation’, a tier below other troublesome strains including the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants.

But Professor Altmann said he expects, ‘from everything I’ve seen is that it will become a variant of concern.’

SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward backed calls for India to be put on the ‘red list’ to buy experts time to study the variant in more detail.

The infectious disease expert urged the Government to ‘err on the side of caution and act sooner rather than later’.

But top experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’.= 

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Monday: ‘This variant has a couple of mutations that are among those that we think are important that should be watched carefully.

‘But they’re actually probably not at the very kind of top tier of mutations, for example in the B.1.1.7 – or Kent variant – or the South African variant, that generate the most concern.’ 

Dr Barnett said the rise of the Indian variant had happened at the same time India suffered a third wave, which may explain its higher prevalence. 

There will be no third wave of deaths – and I should know, writes PROFESSOR PHILIP THOMAS, the academic who has accurately predicted every stage of the pandemic so far

A welcome sense of normality is at last beginning to return to Britain. As shops and bars re-open and families reunite, the long ordeal of lockdown appears to be coming to an end.

Given the current positive trends, the Government’s target of full freedom by June 21 looks like it should be met.

But that is not the message conveyed by a number of pessimistic experts. Full of bleak foreboding, they warn that the lifting of Covid restrictions could plunge us into another health crisis.

Last week, Professor Jeremy Brown, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the BBC that ‘a big third wave could still end up with 30,000 to 50,000 deaths, potentially, if it was a similar sort of size to the previous waves.’

Gloom

The model called the Predictor Corrector Coronavirus Filter (PCCF) looks at what will happen if the R-rate is held at 0.6

The model called the Predictor Corrector Coronavirus Filter (PCCF) looks at what will happen if the R-rate is held at 0.6

Professor Philip Thomas (pictured) believes negativity is overdone

Professor Philip Thomas (pictured) believes negativity is overdone

In the same vein, at the beginning of the month, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) — whose modelling has provided the basis for the tough lockdown policy — warned that Britain is ‘highly likely’ to suffer a third wave, while any attempt to return to life as it was in February 2020 would probably result in ‘a big epidemic’.

This gloom has been compounded by fears about the advent of more infectious variants of the virus, such as the new B.1.617 type from India, whose spread across the subcontinent has just forced the Prime Minister to cancel his forthcoming visit there.

But as a scientist specialising in risk management, I believe this negativity is overdone. There is little convincing evidence to back the claim that, as lockdown is eased, Britain is about to be hit by a third wave, accompanied by a renewed surge in deaths.

On the contrary, it is my view that if there is indeed an increase in infections over the coming months, it will have little significant impact and the death toll will remain extremely low. That is because of the huge success of the vaccine programme, which will mean that by June, the overwhelming majority of the population is protected.

The reality is we are beating the pandemic. As we move into the summer, immunity will grow. In such circumstances, there would be no justification for keeping restrictive measures in place.

This optimism is based partly on the mathematical model I have created, which uses data to project the trajectory of the virus. This is tested against independent measurements made by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

My work on modelling has proved accurate in the past, notably in the 1990s when there was deep concern in government circles about the incidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — known as Mad Cow Disease — and its human equivalent, the brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

Based on my analysis of the data, my contention made in 1996 was that CJD would claim 20 to 520 lives, with a central estimate of 130. That turned out to be remarkably close to the real figure of 180.

Advocate

In contrast, the official advisory team, led by Professor Sir Roy Anderson of Imperial College London, set out scenarios where the death toll ranged from 100 to 10 million.

Intriguingly, one member of Professor Anderson’s team was Professor Neil Ferguson, who has gained a high public profile during the Covid crisis as one of the most voluble advocates of lockdown.

In studying the coronavirus, I developed a model called the Predictor Corrector Coronavirus Filter (PCCF). It is a simple software device, inspired by the work of two pioneering Scots: the mathematical epidemiologist Anderson McKendrick and the biochemist William Kermack, who came up with a hypothesis that could track the spread of an infectious disease.

Like all models, the PCCF had a number of assumptions fed into it, including high levels of both the take-up and effectiveness of the vaccines, based on field data.

What the PCCF model indicates is that there is little danger of our society being overwhelmed by a third wave.

My prediction is that, although the total number of active infections in England could reach a peak of 160,000 in the early autumn of this year, this rise will not lead to a spike in deaths or hospitalisations.

That is because, thanks to the vaccines, the link between Covid infections and fatalities has been broken.

In this new, safer environment, roughly one third of people who are infected will have no symptoms at all, while the vast majority of the remainder will have only mild symptoms. As a result, even when the peak is reached, the death toll will probably be less than 20 per day.

I can have full confidence in this forecast because my PCCF model has proved reassuringly accurate over recent months. Its figures are updated daily online and, each week, they turn out to be retrospectively validated by the latest Covid report from the ONS, which surveys the population through the use of Covid tests on 150,000 participants every fortnight.

Every time, my own data and that of the ONS are reconciled almost exactly, which can hardly be said of all the predictions from Sage.

What the most recent findings prove for certain is the efficacy of the vaccines. That is why we are winning the war on Covid. Even the new variants are a far less deadly threat because the jabs have ‘drawn their sting’, to use the phrase of the epidemiologist Professor Andrew Hayward.

Before the programme started, there were concerns about hesitancy in the public to have the jab, but they have proved unfounded. According to the ONS, 65 per cent of England’s adult population have received at least one dose, while that figure rises to 97 per cent for the over-50s.

Moreover, they have proved even more effective than expected. My PCCF model has turned out to be justified in its assumptions that a first jab provides 69 per cent protection against infection and transmission, as well as reducing the chances of dying by 85 per cent after eight weeks.

What the most recent findings prove for certain is the efficacy of the vaccines. Pictured, Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a pub in Wolverhampton on Monday

What the most recent findings prove for certain is the efficacy of the vaccines. Pictured, Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a pub in Wolverhampton on Monday

Threat

So why are some other experts so pessimistic? I think it is because they are fixated by the goal of eradicating Covid, no matter what the social and economic cost, so they view any measure of freedom as a potential threat.

But this approach lacks any sense of perspective. It fails to take into account the huge collateral damage done by the lockdowns, including poor mental and physical health, financial insecurity, business failures and unemployment.

It has been cruel to the older people locked in care homes and to students trapped on university campuses. One clear indicator of a society’s prosperity is life expectancy. Thanks to the fall-out from lockdown, our average length of life in Britain may already be reducing, which means that people of all ages will die earlier than they should.

We have stored up colossal problems for the future. The last vestiges of lockdown should not continue a moment longer that was planned in the Government’s roadmap. And my model shows that they will not need to. That is a cause for celebration, not anxiety.

  • Philip Thomas is professor of risk management at Bristol University. 

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