Health secretary Matt Hancock has set out plans to combat the fast-spreading coronavirus variant in England, doubling down on a strategy to get jabs into the arms of the most vulnerable.
Hancock told MPs that rather than “jumping ahead” and using limited vaccine supplies on new cohorts of younger people, the aim was to prevent a surge in hospitalisation among older groups.
He announced that cases of the variant first identified in India rose to 2,323, up 76 per cent since Thursday, and that 86 local authorities have reported more than five cases of the strain, known as B. 1.617.2.
With 483 cases reported in the worst hotspots of Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire, north-west England, Hancock said the so-called Indian variant represented the latest challenge in the “race between the virus and the vaccine”.
A Financial Times analysis of the latest regional data for England released on Monday shows the number of local authorities where the Indian strain is dominant doubled in the first week of May. In Sefton, Merseyside, the variant made up 90 per cent of cases, closely followed by Bolton at 86 per cent.
Hancock said the priority was to get first jabs into the arms of people who had declined to have a vaccination, pointing out that they formed the majority of B. 1.617.2 seriously ill cases in Bolton. “They have ended up in hospital — some of them in intensive care,” he said.
The second priority was to ensure the most vulnerable people received their second jab. Hancock confirmed plans to cut from 12 weeks to eight weeks the interval between the two shots for the over-50s.
“Now it’s important to accelerate second doses for all those most vulnerable of ending up in hospital or dying,” he said.
His comments came as England took a further step towards pre-pandemic times, with pubs and restaurants serving customers indoors, and hotels and cinemas reopening. Hancock said the reopening of the economy had to be accompanied by “vigilance”.
The health secretary said he still expected to have enough vaccines available to invite all over-35s to come forward for a first jab by the end of the week.
Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at Bristol university and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said the body would look again at its advice that people under-40 should be offered alternatives to the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.
In a sign that the B. 1.617.2 variant was changing the balance of risk, he said: “If the evidence shows that the risk-benefit balance for people in their 30s is to be offered that vaccine then, absolutely, that recommendation will be changed.”
In the longer term Hancock revealed that the government had made a sufficient order for Pfizer vaccines to use on children aged 12 to 18, if it was clinically approved.
Hancock said he was delighted that a YouGov survey had found that Britons had the “highest vaccination enthusiasm in the world” and that 90 per cent said they had received a jab — or would have one.
The government has so far relied on community leaders and other opinion formers to address the issue of “vaccine hesitancy”. Treasury officials said there was no plan to give people financial incentives to have the jab.
The spread of the “Indian” variant has cast doubts about whether prime minister Boris Johnson would be able to lift all remaining social restrictions in England as planned on June 21.
Downing Street said announcements on the future of social distancing, guidance on weddings and plans for domestic coronavirus “passports” could be delayed by the new variant.
But Graham Medley, head of the Spi-M modelling group, said early evidence suggested vaccines worked well against the new strain and the risk of having to delay the end of restrictions was “well less than 50 per cent”.
Meanwhile, Hancock confirmed that nobody should travel to amber list countries “in the interest of public health”, even though the ban on foreign travel was formally lifted on Monday.