Coronavirus: UK must not 'squander hard-fought gains' in June, Nadhim Zahawi says

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Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the UK must be 'really careful' so not to 'squander' gains made with vaccines

Britain's vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi hinted at a delay to the end of the lockdown roadmap today when he said the UK must not 'squander those hard fought gains that we have made through the vaccination programme'.

Confirmed cases of the Indian 'Delta' variant have more than tripled in a week from 12,431 to 42,323 and the strain appears to be spreading 64 per cent faster than the Kent variant, Public Health England confirmed today.

Mr Zahawi said No10 would have to be 'really careful' when moving forward now so the country can avoid the virus bouncing back and triggering a massive third wave or mutating again.

It is now almost certain that Boris Johnson will delay the 'Freedom Day' end of restrictions slated for June 21, which could have seen crowd limits lifted at large events, weddings and bars. The PM is keeping his cards close to his chest but ministers have been dropping hints that he will err on the side of caution and announce a delay. 

Mr Zahawi said on Times Radio: 'There has been some really hard won battles against this virus and we don't want to squander those hard fought gains that we have made through the vaccination programme. The virus hasn't gone away, the virus will continue to mutate, to escape, to try and survive, and I think it's really important that we are really careful.' 

He said that supplies of the Pfizer jab, which is being used for everyone under the age of 40 as well as for second doses for around half of older people, were going to be 'tight' in the coming weeks as the rollout rattles ahead. 

People in their 20s were invited to book vaccine appointments for the first time this week and clamoured for the jabs with more than a million people getting booked in on Tuesday alone - a one-day record for the NHS. 

The minister said on LBC: 'Every time I've said the determining factor in terms of vaccine in arms is supply. And supply remains finite, but it is stable, and Pfizer have done a great job in being consistent on their delivery schedule.' 

It is believed that ministers are still considering keeping some curbs in place for a further two to four weeks to buy more time for the vaccine programme amid mounting concern about the spread of the Indian variant.

While an exception is likely to be made for weddings, ministers have become increasingly pessimistic over the course of the week and are now moving closer to a delayed freedom day that could coincide with the start of the school summer holidays.

The Pfizer supply setback comes as a particular blow as it makes the prospect of speeding up the vaccine roll-out to meet demand much more difficult.

Public Health England graphs show how the Indian 'Delta' variant (pink) rapidly overtook all other strains of the virus to become dominant in April and May

The North West (dark blue) has been by far the hardest hit region by the new variant while London (yellow) has experienced the second highest number of cases

Figures released yesterday showed the Government is on course to hit its target to have offered a second coronavirus vaccine dose to all over-50s by June 21 - but a setback followed just hours later

Scottish MP Humza Yousaf told Matt Hancock in a letter that supplies of the Pfizer jab are to be 'particularly tight over the next few weeks', not just in Scotland but across the UK, according to the i newspaper. 

Mr Yousaf's fears are the result of the updated advice published the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation last month, which said that under-40s should be given Pfizer or Moderna jabs rather than the AstraZeneca equivalent due to concerns over a small risk of blood clots in younger patients.

And with thousands of under-30s now receiving jabs after the vaccine roll-out picked up pace, demand for doses of Pfizer has now soared beyond supply levels.

Yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that the Indian variant now comprises 91 per cent of new infections.

Figures showed Covid-19 case rates have increased across every region in England in the past week. But hospital admissions have only increased fractionally – while deaths are up by just 1.9 per cent on the previous week.

NHS bosses have said vaccines appear to have broken the link between rising cases and hospitalisations. Those that are admitted are often younger and less sick than during previous waves.

According to NHS data published yesterday, more than 85 per cent over-50s in England – considered the age group most at risk – have now had two vaccine doses.

If the NHS in England continues to give doses to 1.3million over-50s a week, everyone in that age bracket should be fully vaccinated by the time all remaining covid curbs are due to ease.

Among younger age groups, 35.5 per cent of those aged 40 to 49 are now estimated to have had both doses, along with 22.6 per cent of those aged 30 to 39.

The number of people falling ill with Covid has more than doubled in a week, a symptom-tracking study warned today amid the rapid spread of the Indian variant across the UK

Yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that the Indian variant now comprises 91 per cent of new infections

Boris Johnson is expected to decide whether England can go ahead with the full re-opening on June 21 at a meeting in Downing Street on Sunday evening, following the conclusion of the G7 summit in Cornwall. 

Then, after flying to Brussels on Monday morning to attend a Nato summit, he will return to London in the evening to address the nation.

The Government is planning to lift the 30-person limit on weddings, Whitehall sources confirmed last night. 

But they insisted the Prime Minister is still undecided about the wider lifting of measures including social distancing rules and work-from-home advice. 

Yesterday, the UK recorded 7,393 new coronavirus cases and seven deaths within 28 days of a positive test. Infections have risen 63 per cent in the past seven days compared to the week before.

But the number of hospital admissions has remained steady and the average number of deaths each day has stayed below ten.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the newly-created UK Health Security Agency, said the country was going 'not quite in the right direction' and data suggested there would be a further rise in infections in the coming weeks.

But the health chief said the figures suggested that those aged 60 and above are not getting ill because they are 'doubly vaccinated'.

She added that those appearing in hospital are either unvaccinated or have had a single dose.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: 'The point of the five-week gap between the steps [in the roadmap] is for us to analyse the data. That's exactly what we've been doing, and we will continue to do so… ahead of saying something early next week.' 

'Mix and match' unlocking for June 21? Boris could keep face masks but drop 30-guest wedding limit 

Boris Johnson could implement a 'mix and match' unlocking on Freedom Day, with face masks, work from home guidance and the rule of six indoors likely to still be mandatory after June 21 but the 30-guest cap on weddings dropped.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that 'everybody can see cases and hospitalisations are going up' and gave the strongest hint yet the much-anticipated milestone will be pushed back because of the rapid spread of the Indian Covid variant.

No10's top scientists fear the mutant strain may be 60 per cent more transmissible than the once dominant Kent version and SAGE modellers fear it will trigger a 'substantial' third wave — despite three-quarters of adults having been vaccinated.

Despite mounting fears about plans to go ahead with the final unlocking and intensifying calls to delay it by up to four weeks to allow the NHS time to fully vaccinate millions more vulnerable over-50s, ministers are hopeful they can relax some curbs from later this month.

A senior Government source told the FT: 'A mix-and-match approach is probably on the cards, given the limited number of levers left.'

Officials are working to find a solution that 'pleases the PM's instincts', according to one minister, but the hybrid approach would be 'very difficult' to put in place. It could include lifting the current 30-person limit on weddings and receptions and allowing far greater crowds to attend ceremonies, bringing it in line with the Government's policy on funerals.

Bar mitzvahs and christenings are also set to be boosted under the proposals and while socially distanced tables would not be required, guests may be urged to be 'cautious' about contact with other households, reports the Times.

Current guidelines suggest those attending bashes only participate in the first dance and wear masks at all times unless eating or drinking but under the new rules, people will be advised to assess the risk of hugging others themselves.

A government source said: 'It's been tough on the sector. If you've got stadiums full of people, why can't weddings go ahead with more than 30 people?'

Mr Johnson softened his lockdown-ending stance yesterday in Cornwall ahead of the G7 summit, admitting there was now 'arguments' on both sides of the restrictions-easing debate. The PM repeated his pledge that No10 'will be driven by the data'.

But just hours before his comments, top SAGE adviser 'Professor Lockdown' Neil Ferguson dealt another blow to hopes of Freedom Day going ahead.

The Imperial College London epidemiologist warned it would take up to another three weeks for scientists to get enough data to accurately work out how dangerous the Indian variant is and how bad the third wave will be. He added there was a risk of a 'substantial third wave but we cannot be definitive about the scale of that'.

The chance that scientific advisers, ministers and Mr Johnson — who committed to following the science and 'not dates' — will sign off on June 21 without the most accurate modelling is slim to none.

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