London, United Kingdom — England remains on track for the latest easing of its coronavirus lockdown next week but is taking no chances after a doubling of cases of an Indian variant, the government said Friday.
Accelerated vaccinations, surge testing, and possible local restrictions are all in the mix after infections of the variant rose from 520 last week to 1,313 this week, officials said.
The health ministry said the B1.617.2 variant is “beginning to spread increasingly rapidly” in northwest England and to a lesser extent in London, “and decisive action is being taken to further control its spread”.
“But we think that the roadmap for Monday remains in place because the vaccines are delivered, and vaccines are keeping people out of hospital, and of course, away from severe infection,” vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News.
Last month the government added India, which is experiencing a devastating wave of deaths from COVID-19, to a travel red list, meaning travelers from the country have to quarantine in hotels on arrival in Britain.
In the northwest English city of Bolton, which has a sizeable population of South Asian origin, mobile testing units have been deployed and door-to-door testing is also on offer to 22,000 residents.
Britain has been gradually reopening its economy, after months of coronavirus restrictions and a successful mass vaccination campaign.
On Monday, indoor mixing is set to resume in England, including in pubs and restaurants.
Questions remain, however, about how well the vaccine rollout will stand up to the Indian variant — one of three which has been detected in Britain.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday the government was “ruling nothing out” in its response, but has remained bullish about next week’s reopening.
However, Deepti Gurdasani, senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary’s University London, said that must now be postponed.
“Further, we may have to actually strengthen restrictions a bit more to get on top of this, because we need to remember this is actually growing with current restrictions in place and growing rapidly,” she told Times Radio.
The Indian variant is also triggering concern in Scotland and Wales, which administer their own health policy, and the governments there are also not ruling out further action.