© Reuters. People line up outside a mobile vaccination center, amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bolton, Britain on May 13, 2021. REUTERS / Phil Noble
By Kate Holton and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said Britain would speed up its COVID-19 vaccination program, to try to contain a rapidly spreading variant first identified in India that could derail a reopening of the economy.
The UK has launched one of the fastest vaccination campaigns in the world, giving a first injection to almost 70% of the adult population and a second to 36%, helping to reduce infection rates and death.
But the emergence of the B.1.617.2 variant in parts of northern England and London has prompted some scientists to call for the reopening to be delayed and to rethink the speed of vaccine deployment.
“I think we should trust our vaccines to protect the public while monitoring the situation very closely as the race between our vaccination schedule and the virus may be about to get much tighter,” said Johnson at a press conference.
He said the government would speed up the remaining second doses to those over 50 and clinically vulnerable people to just eight weeks after the first dose, and prioritize the first doses for those eligible who have not yet come forward.
Even so, the spread of the variant could disrupt Britain’s progress outside the lockdown, making it more difficult to move into the final stage of a phased reopening of the economy in June, he said.
Johnson aimed to lift all restrictions on June 21, after allowing Britons from Monday to kiss again, meet in small groups indoors and travel abroad.
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said there was now confidence that B.1.617.2 was more transmissible than the “Kent” variant which fueled the second wave of infections in England. He said B.1.617.2 could come to dominate in Britain.
Public Health England said on Thursday there had been 1,313 cases of B.1.617.2 in England in a week, more than double the figure from the previous week, with four confirmed deaths.
Whitty has said so far that there has been no significant increase in hospitalizations from the variant, which could be due to more people having been vaccinated.
But Johnson and Whitty both said it was still early days and scientists would need to look at the data over the next two or three weeks to really see the impact of the variant.
Britain put India on a travel ‘red list’ in April, meaning all arrivals from India – now suffering from the world’s worst COVID-19 wave – would have to pay for self-quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days.
Media at the time suggested that because the quarantine requirement was announced four days in advance, many people had sought to steal in advance. Great Britain has a large South Asian community.
Even with new variants, the government will likely want to avoid repeating the regional borders used last year, which ultimately failed to prevent two more national lockdowns.
Nationally, infections are still low and have fallen for a fifth straight week in England, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Friday.
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