he UK is in a “straight race” to vaccinate its population in order to outrun the threat of the Indian Covid variant, according to England’s deputy chief medical officer.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the vaccine-rate over the next few weeks would be crucial for ensuring the Prime Minister could lift all restrictions on June 21, as set out in his road map out of lockdown.
As part of efforts to “turbo-boost” the vaccine programme, more than one million people aged 34 and 35 will receive a text message on Thursday or Friday asking them to come forward for their Covid vaccine, NHS England confirmed. People ged 34 and over can also go onto the NHS site to book.
Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London expert whose work led to the first lockdown in March 2020, said on Wednesday that there was a “glimmer of hop” from recent data on the variant.
“Whilst this variant does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data.
“The curves are flattening a little.”
Almost 3,000 cases of the Indian variant have been identified in the UK – up from the 2,323 declared on Monday – and surge testing has been launched in a number of areas in a bid to control its spread.
Prof Van-Tam told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday: “I pitch this personally as a straight race between the transmissibility of this new variant … and vaccine delivery.
“The NHS is doing everything it can to turbo-boost that, and that is the challenge that’s ahead of us in the next two to three to four weeks, to make sure that we outrun the virus through really vigorous pull-through on vaccine delivery.”
Prof Van-Tam said scientists would have more information by next week on how transmissible the Indian variant is versus the Kent strain, which has become dominant in the UK.
Experts had feared it could be up to 50 per cent more transmissible, but the Government adviser suggested studies could find it is only half that.
The spread of the variant of concern had cast doubt on next month’s plans to ease the remaining restrictions in England, but Boris Johnson told the Commons his administration had “increasing confidence” that vaccines would prove effective against it.
Sources confirmed Mr Johnson told the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs he was “even more cautiously optimistic” than last week about being able to scrap all restrictions next month.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock struck a more cautious tone at a press briefing earlier in the day, saying a final decision on whether to move to the next stage of the road map would be taken as late as possible – on June 14, a week before the measures would take effect.
“Until then, it is just too early to say,” said the Cabinet minister.
Mr Hancock defended the Government’s moves to open up international travel via a traffic light system after the ban on international holidays was lifted on Monday, as part of the latest phase of lockdown easing.