Fast-spreading B1617 variant could delay Britain's reopening, PM warns

The emergence of the B1617 variant — which was first identified in India  — in parts of northern England and London has prompted some scientists to call for a slowdown in the U.K.'s plans to reestablish normalcy.

Race between vaccination push and rise of variant could become tighter, Boris Johnson says

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is shown during a visit to a vaccination centre in this file photo. On Friday, Johnson said the rise of a coronavirus variant first identified in India could make the race between vaccination and the virus much tighter in the U.K.'s efforts to reopen safely. (Jon Super/Pool via Reuters/File Photo)

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that the government would accelerate its COVID-19 vaccination program to try to contain another fast-spreading variant that could knock the reopening of the British economy off track.

The U.K. has delivered one of the world's fastest inoculation campaigns, giving a first shot to almost 70 per cent of the adult population and a second to 36 per cent, helping to reduce infection rates and deaths.

But the emergence of the B1617 variant — which was first identified in India  — in parts of northern England and London has prompted some scientists to call for the reopening to be delayed, and a rethink on the speed of the vaccine rollout.

"I believe we should trust in our vaccines to protect the public whilst monitoring the situation very closely because the race between our vaccination program and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter," Johnson told a news conference.

Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said there was now confidence that B1617 was more transmissible than the B117 variant that was first identified in Kent and fuelled England's second wave of infections. He said B1617 could come to dominate in Britain.

Johnson said the government would accelerate remaining second doses to people over age 50 and people who are clinically vulnerable to illness to just eight weeks after the first dose, and would prioritize first doses for those who are  eligible but had not yet come forward.

Even so, the spread of the variant could disrupt Britain's progress out of lockdown, making it more difficult to move to the final stage of a staggered reopening of the economy in June, he said.

Johnson had aimed to lift all restrictions on June 21, after allowing people in England to hug again, meet in small groups indoors and travel abroad starting Monday. 

Public Health England said on Thursday there had been 1,313 cases in England of B1617 in a week, more than double the previous week's figure, with four confirmed deaths.

Whitty said so far there had not been a significant increase in hospitalizations from the variant, which may be because more people had been vaccinated.

But both Johnson and Whitty said it was still early days, and scientists would need to scrutinize data over the next two or three weeks to truly see the impact of the variant.

Britain put India on a travel "red list" in April, meaning all arrivals from India — now suffering the world's worst wave of COVID-19 — would have to pay to quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days.

Media reports at the time suggested that, because the quarantine requirement was announced four days in advance, many people had sought to fly beforehand. 

Even with new variants, the government is likely to want to avoid repeating the regional curbs used last year, which ultimately failed to prevent two further national lockdowns.

At the national level, infections are still low, and fell for a fifth consecutive week in England, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed on Friday.