LONDON (AP) – Britain on Saturday deployed military-backed public health officials to distribute door-to-door coronavirus tests in two towns in northern England on Saturday with the aim to contain a fast-spreading variant that threatens plans to lift all lockdown restrictions. next month.
Cases of a strain first identified in India more than doubled in a week, defying a strong nationwide downward trend in infections won by months of restrictions and a rapid vaccination campaign. Government science advisers say the variant is likely more transmissible than the dominant strain from the UK, although it is not known to what extent.
“If the virus is significantly more transmissible, we will likely be faced with difficult choices,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a press conference on Friday. “I must say with you that this could seriously disrupt our progress.”
He said the next step in the lockdown easing measures would take place as scheduled on Monday, but warned the variant could delay plans to lift all restrictions, including social distancing and face protection rules, June 21st.
Johnson said the soldiers would help carry out “surge tests” in Bolton and Blackburn in the north-west of England, where pop-up vaccination sites were also being set up to speed up the vaccination campaign.
The government’s science advisory committee says there is no evidence to date that the variant causes more serious disease or that existing vaccines will not work against it. More than two-thirds of UK adults have received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 37% have had both doses.
The government is closing the dose gap for people over 50 from 12 to 8 weeks in an effort to give them more protection.
The government emergency panel said the variant identified by India, officially known as B.1.617.2, could be up to 50% more transmissible than that first recorded in the south. -est of England last year, which is now the dominant strain of the UK. But they say there is a high level of uncertainty about the exact figure.
Mark Walport, a member of the advisory group, said the new variant had “stepped up” the race between the virus and vaccines.
“The edge of the knife on which the race rests has just sharpened,” he said.
Britain has recorded nearly 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe. But new infections have fallen to an average of around 2,000 per day, from nearly 70,000 per day during the winter peak, and deaths have fallen to single digits per day.
The restrictions that have held back travel, commerce and daily life for months are gradually being lifted. From Monday restaurants and pubs in England can open indoors, museums, theaters, cinemas and hotels can reopen and people can once again hug friends and family with whom they don’t live.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland follow similar but slightly different paths. The Scottish government is keeping the city of Glasgow and the northern Moray region under restrictions due to the increase in the number of cases there.
Critics said the government should have acted sooner to ban travelers from India, which has been hit by a devastating coronavirus outbreak.
Labor Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper said the government had not banned visitors from arriving from India until April 23, a move that let in “several hundred new case variants.”
“It was predictable but it was not inevitable,” she said.