Surge in variant cases prompts calls for delayed reopening in U.K.

A passenger jet on its way to Heathrow Airport glides above the rooftops of Hounslow, a London borough in the shadow of an international flight path.

It’s one of Britain’s hot spots for the rapidly spreading COVID-19 variant known as the delta variant, or B.1.617.2, first found in India and believed to have arrived in the U.K. by way of an air traveller.

The variant is now the dominant strain in England and to fight it, communities with outbreaks have launched mass coronavirus testing and stepped up vaccination campaigns.

“We have been very busy, early in the morning at eight o’clock we had over 250 people in the line,” said Darshan Singh.

He is a volunteer at a pop-up vaccination clinic set up at Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, a Sikh temple where anyone can come for a shot without an appointment.

“People are becoming more aware, and there is a lot of media coverage. People are worried, and they just come,” Singh said.

‘People are worried, and they just come,’ said Darshan Singh, a volunteer at one of the country’s few pop-up vaccination clinics. (Fernando Moreno/CBC)

In recent days, the number of new COVID-19 infections in the U.K. has topped 5,000, numbers which haven’t been seen since March. Cases of the variant have gone up by 5,472 to 12,431 in the last week, according to Public Health England.

In Leek, a town in northern England, nearly 1,000 students and staff are now self-isolating after an outbreak at two schools and a college. 

People living in areas with increasing cases of the variant are being advised to socialize outdoors and limit travel if possible, though there are no restrictions on movement per se. 

Is the U.K. at the start of another pandemic wave?

“The [variant] also has these properties that might enable it to move from one person to the other quicker, so this is why we’re all worried,” said Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge. 

He says the U.K. is in the early stages of a third wave and the government needs to delay it’s next stage of reopening, which is slated for June 21 in England. 

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University, has called on the government to delay the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. He says the adaptability of the new COVID-19 variants makes the U.K. vulnerable, despite its vaccination efforts. (Africa Health Research Institute)

England is currently in the third stage of reopening, which allows outdoor and indoor dining, the opening of theatres and cinemas outside gatherings in large groups and inside in small ones.

Stage 4 would see the end to all limits on social contact and the return of nightclubs, large events and big weddings. The government says it will use of testing and other techniques to cut the risk of infection.  

Certain pop-up vaccination centres in England have started offering vaccines without an appointment in an effort to get the entire adult population vaccinated as quickly as possible. (Fernando Moreno/CBC)

Concerns have led to a partial rollback on international travel from England. In May, residents were allowed to travel to 12 countries without having to quarantine on return. There were hopes more countries would be added to the list; instead, Portugal was removed from it Thursday.

How effective are vaccines? 

A recent study from Public Health England found that vaccines are effective against the delta variant after two doses; 50 per cent of adults in the U.K. have now received both.

“If this had arrived four or five months down the line we would have been in a much more relaxed position,” says Gupta who is part of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group , which advises the Government 

Gupta predicts this wave probably won’t be as serious as the previous one, caused by the alpha variant, or B.1.1.7, first detected in the U.K. in November 2020.

“But the problem is, with our health system, there is already low morale. People are exhausted and even if it was a quarter of what it was before, that would still be too much.”

But not all scientists agree that the government should change course just yet.

Sir John Bell is an immunologist and professor of medicine at Oxford University and an adviser to the government. 

“I think we do need to get a bit of balance in the discussion and keep our eyes on the serious disease that we’re trying to prevent,” Bell said in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today show this week. 

He says it’s more important to be watching hospitalizations and death numbers than case count.

Hospitalizations have ticked up slightly, but for the first time since the pandemic, the U.K. had a day this week with no deaths. 

“If we scamper down a rabbit hole every time we see a new variant, we’re going to spend a long time huddled away,” Bell told the BBC. 

Lockdown restrictions in England have been easing in stages, with the next announcement of lighter rules set for June 21. (Jason Cairnduff/Reuters)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during an interview at 10 Downing street that he could “see nothing in the data at the moment that means we can’t go ahead with Step 4 of opening up.”

Johnson said public health officials always knew there would be an increase in infection rates following the first three steps out of lockdown. He said government scientists are looking at models to determine how effective the vaccines are against the delta variant but right now, “the data is just still ambiguous.”

Government not quick enough to respond 

“They’ve got a history of delaying making decisions,” said a frustrated Steve Curran, a councillor in Hounslow.

He says the government is to blame for the variant taking off, because it did not shut down flights from India soon enough. 

“They’d already put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list, and they should have done the same for India at the time,” he said, referring to the two-week delay in banning flights from India. 

Councillor Steve Curran, leader of Hounslow Council in West London, says trying to limit travel for his community is next to impossible. He represents the borough containing Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. (Fernando Moreno/CBC)

He says hearing about these surges has been difficult not only because of a lack of communication from senior government officials but also because people are ready to get on with their lives

“Everyone wants to get out. They want to go on a holiday, enjoy themselves, but we have to be cautious. I’m optimistic,” he said about their ability to suppress this variant. 

A similar sentiment could be heard among people getting the vaccine in Hounslow. Local resident Jane Akinhead says despite the news she is more positive about the future than at any other point in the pandemic. 

But, she says, if there is any chance of local restrictions in outbreak areas or the return to any style of lockdown, the government will have a challenge on its hands. 

“I don’t even know [if] people would abide by them if they came back in now,” she said. “I think people are well past it now.”

WATCH | How certain U.K. communities are tackling surge in new variant

A resurgence of COVID-19 in the U.K. is linked to the B1617 strain first found in India and it has sparked concerns it may delay plans to emerge from lockdown. 1:56

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