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COVID-19: Indian coronavirus variant could cause 'serious disruption' to lockdown easing in June, PM

14 May

The Indian COVID variant could cause "serious disruption" to the planned roadmap out of lockdown in June, the prime minister has said.

Speaking at a Downing Street news conference, Boris Johnson said the coronavirus strain could delay the fourth stage of lockdown easing on 21 June - although the unlocking this Monday will still go ahead.
"I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June," he said.
But he said this was dependent on how fast the virus spreads - something scientists need more time to determine.
"Some hard choices" may have to be made if it is much more transmissible than previous variants, he added.
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At the same time government scientific advisers said that there is a "realistic possibility" that the new variant could be "50% more transmissible" than the one that emerged in Kent at the end of last year.
Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said: "We expect over time this variant will overtake and come to dominate in the UK in the way that B.1.1.7 took over and other variants have taken over prior to that."
The warnings come as Mr Johnson announced plans to accelerate second dose vaccinations for people in priority groups because of concern over the Indian variant.
He said: "We will accelerate remaining second doses to the over-50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose."
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Striking a more optimistic tone Mr Johnson said there was "no evidence" to suggest the vaccines currently in use would be less effective against the B.1.617.2 strain first found in India.
But he added: "Now, the question in practical terms, over the next two to three weeks, is - 'is this somewhat more transmissible than [the Kent variant], or is this a lot more transmissible?'.
"And that will have implications for the long term prospects of this epidemic."
The comments follow a series of pilot events to monitor the effect of easing restrictions completely - including a club night in Liverpool and a football match at Wembley Stadium.
Elsewhere, Germany has announced that the UK and its overseas territories - including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands - are now "risk areas" due to the presence of the Indian variant.
At the news conference, both Professor Whitty and Mr Johnson praised people who had already received their vaccine - and encouraged eligible people to get theirs when offered.
He said: "I believe we should trust in our vaccines to protect the public whilst monitoring the situation as it develops very closely.
"Because the race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter."
It comes as it emerged that four people in the UK have died with the Indian variant of COVID-19 - the first known domestic deaths from the new strain of the virus.
The four deaths from the strain of the virus, now designated a "variant of concern", took place between 5 May and 12 May.
Public Health England said on Thursday there had been 1,313 cases in England of the Indian variant in a week, more than double the previous week's figure, along with the four confirmed deaths.
Britain put India on a travel "red list" in April, meaning all arrivals from India - now in the throes of the world's worst wave of coronavirus - would have to pay to quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days.
The variant is thought to be spreading in certain areas of the UK, including Bolton and Blackburn, but since overall case numbers remain low, broader risk levels remain lower than they were for much of the winter.


COVID-19: Indian coronavirus variant expected to become most dominant in UK, says Professor Chris Wh

14 May

The Indian coronavirus variant is expected to become the most dominant in the UK and is more transmissible than the one that originated in Kent, government scientists have said.

England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said: "We expect over time this variant will overtake and come to dominate in the UK in the way that B.1.1.7 (Kent variant) took over and other variants have taken over prior to that."
Prime Minister Boris Johnson added that due to high rates of variant cases in Bolton and the North West, England's easing of restrictions on 21 June could be delayed.
But he sought to reassure the public, saying there is "no evidence" that current COVID-19 vaccines will not be effective against the new strain.
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Government scientific advisers say there is a "realistic possibility" that the India variant could be "50% more transmissible" than the one that emerged in Kent.
The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O) warned it could cause a "significant resurgence" of the virus, as "there are still too few adults vaccinated" to stop its progress.
It said that if transmissibility is between 40% and 50% higher than the Kent strain, the peak in hospitalisations would be "similar or larger" than the ones in spring 2020 and January 2021 - if no restrictions are imposed.
On Thursday, Public Health England (PHE) published data that showed Indian variant cases have doubled in the past week from 520 to 1,313.
It also revealed that four people have died as a result of it, but stressed the overall risk remains low.
Currently India is on the government's red travel list, which means anyone arriving in the UK from there must stay in a government-sanctioned hotel for 10 days.
But experts and opposition politicians have expressed concern this would still allow the variant to enter the UK.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran told Sky News on Friday that going ahead with Monday's lifting of the ban on international travel is a "failure of government strategy to contain variants coming into this country".
"We need to batten down the hatches," she said.
"It was the Kent variant that we exported, we've now got the Indian variant coming back, this won't be the last of it."
To mitigate the spread of the variant of concern (VOC), Mr Johnson announced on Friday that the over-50s and clinically vulnerable are now eligible to get their second vaccine doses three weeks sooner than before.
Areas such as Greater Manchester where it appears to be spreading are also lobbying the government to roll out vaccinations to all age groups.
A pharmacy in Sefton on Merseyside is going against government advice and calling everyone over the age of 18 to get their jab.


COVID-19: The three days in April that may have fuelled UK outbreak of Indian coronavirus variant

15 May

If the new Indian variant does install itself as the main variant of COVID-19 in this country; if it does lead to more cases and in turn more deaths - and both of those remain big ifs - the question of how this happened is likely to focus on three days in April.

And it's a question that has grown more pertinent - Prof Chris Whitty said that over time the new variant is indeed expected to become the dominant strain in the UK, while the prime minister said that it could cause "serious disruption" to the planned roadmap out of lockdown in June.
The spotlight will likely fall not just on the scientists advising the prime minister, but on Boris Johnson himself.
For the decision to delay putting India on the red list of countries, from which travel is heavily limited, and the decision to implement this not immediately but with a gap of just over three days - during which thousands of travellers from India entered the country amid a surge of demand for flights - happened in the shadow of one of the biggest of all political and economic stories of recent decades: Brexit.
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One of the overarching ambitions of this country since leaving the European Union and ending the transition period at the end of last year, has been to seal as many trade deals as possible with as many of the world's leading economies.
With the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, ambitions of agreeing a trade deal with the US any time soon were scaled back (the working ambition is now "at some point before the US mid-term elections") and attention swung to other major economies.

India has long been a promising target for those at the Department for International Trade.
It is not just former colonial ties which make it attractive: Indian companies are now among the biggest investors in the UK and Britain has something of a trump card in these talks: visas.
The Indian government has often sought to increase the number of visas available to Indian citizens to travel, work and study in the UK. Any travel restrictions remain a sore point. There are other low-hanging fruit too, including a long-standing dispute over Scotch whisky which the EU's negotiators have failed to resolve in recent years.
Sealing a deal, even a provisional one, with one of the world's fastest growing and dynamic economies, has long been a goal for the prime minister.
The fact that he might be able to declare victory in the battle over Scotch, and the tantalising prospect of agreeing a deal before the EU - which is also in parallel trade discussions with India - only added to the allure.
All of which is why Mr Johnson had been so determined to make India the destination for his first major foreign visit as prime minister. The trip had originally been slated for January, but was delayed as the UK faced a sharp increase in COVID cases.
It was rearranged for late April, with Mr Johnson due to fly out for meetings and negotiations on April 25.
The working plan was that Mr Johnson would be able to announce that early discussions were now under way about a deal - and that formal negotiations would begin in the autumn. There would be talk of more visas for Indian migrants and of resolving the long-standing impasse on Scotch.
It was to be one of the early "wins" for the PM as he sought to underline the economic opportunities that lay outside the EU.
Yet as the date of the visit approached, the epidemiological data coming out of the Indian subcontinent began to deteriorate. Cases of COVID-19 had been rising fast throughout March, causing concern amid the global public health community.
Data on cases and deaths in India has never been as reliable as the numbers in Europe, with many epidemiologists suspecting vast undercounting of infections and deaths both last year and this. But even this likely undercounted data had begun to show a significant uptick in cases by late March.
By 2 April there was enough disquiet that the UK added the two countries neighbouring India on its east and west, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to its "red list". Foreign travellers from countries on the list cannot travel to this country; UK and Irish citizens and residents can enter, but must stay in a government-assigned hotel for a 10 day quarantine period.
The goal of this policy is to prevent the entry to the country of any dangerous variants of the disease - and the South African and Brazilian variants were known to be circulating in these countries.
Yet even as Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the red list (the implementation took place on 9 April), questions were being asked about why India was not joining them.
In early April there were stories about the country's cemeteries being overwhelmed. In the days following 2 April the number of new cases of COVID-19 rose beyond an average of 100,000 a day, and then over 200,000 a day. Still India remained off the red list.
It is at this period that the UK started to detect an influx of positive COVID-19 cases from India. According to data from Public Health England, of the 3,345 people arriving from India between 25 March and 7 April, 4.8% tested positive for COVID-19. At that stage, the percentage of people in England with COVID-19 was 0.1%.
It was also at this stage that Public Health England began to pick up arrivals of three Indian variants around the UK.
In particular, the most worrying of all those variants, B1.617.2, which is the variant which is spreading most quickly and has now claimed at least four lives, was first detected in tests carried out on travellers arriving from India on the week ending 29 March.
According to PHE data, at least 122 passengers arriving from Delhi and Mumbai between late March and 26 April were carrying this variant, now designated a "variant of concern". All but a handful of these travellers would have been allowed, under the rules then in place, to leave the airport and travel home, where they were asked to self-isolate.
Even as cases of the new variant were arriving in the UK, concern was growing in Whitehall about why India had still been left off the red list. There is little publicly released data or methodology on most of these decisions, which are technically in the hands of the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
It says it considers a variety of factors, including the prevalence of the disease in given countries and the quality of the infrastructure there. During this period many in the epidemiological community voiced concern about the omission. Some wondered why the government was taking so long.
Two weeks on from the decision to put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the list, there came an answer of sorts.
On the morning of 19 April, Downing Street announced that the prime minister's trip to India was cancelled. A few hours after news of the cancellation of the prime ministerial visit, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that India would also be added to the red list.
By then - the afternoon of 19 April - the daily number of new cases in India had surpassed a quarter of a million. Within a couple of days the official numbers - themselves widely believed to be an undercount of reality - would mean this was officially the biggest outbreak in any country during the entire pandemic.
However, the UK's decision to place India on the red list was not immediate. Instead, three full days and nights would go by before it would be implemented.
These delays are not unusual during the short history of COVID travel restrictions. Invariably when a country is added to the list it is given a period of time - often up to a week - for travellers to make the necessary plans in advance.
However, there is nothing to stop ministers imposing these restrictions far sooner. Indeed, when the hotel quarantine scheme was first announced, Downing Street briefed journalists that countries could be added to the list "at a few hours' notice". That did not happen with India.
In the following three days demand for flights between India and the UK shot through the roof.
Travel website Skyscanner reported a 250% leap in searches for flights from India to the UK. There are typically 30 such flights a week.
In those days, four airlines requested to operate an extra eight flights from India due to the surge in demand ahead of the implementation of the hotel quarantine. The requests were turned down, but thousands of passengers nonetheless travelled into the UK.
Even before this three-day period, the proportion of cases of B 1.617.2 imported from India had been on the rise. But between 4 April and 2 May, this variant rose from 4.9% of all cases detected among travellers, to 40.9%.
The single biggest increase in these weekly numbers was the week which included the three and a half days between the afternoon of 19 April and the early morning of 23 April.
It is worth underlining that it is still much too early to say whether the B 1.617.2 will indeed change the course of the pandemic in the UK. It is certainly spreading faster than any other variant of concern since the famous Kent variant which established itself as the dominant strain of the virus in the winter.
However it remains a small fraction of the total of cases, which are themselves small in comparison with recent months.
As of 5 May, the percentage of people in England with any variant of COVID-19 had dropped to just 0.07%, the lowest level since early September, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Hospitalisations, deaths and case numbers remain low.
However, cases are growing fast in a few areas where the Indian variant seems to have established itself, including Bolton, Blackburn and Leicester. By contrast, a cluster of cases in London seems to be under control.
It is too early to tell whether this presages the beginning of another spread throughout the country.
However, one factor is decisively different from the winter or indeed last year: the majority of UK citizens have now received a first dose of a vaccine, and the early evidence suggests, tentatively, that these vaccines provide adequate protection against this new variant.
Outside of India, there are few countries other than the UK that have quite so many confirmed cases of B1.617.2 - though this may owe itself partly to the fact that this country carries out more gene sequencing than any other country.
Even so, if the Indian variant establishes itself as the dominant strain in the UK, jeopardising the sacrifices and suffering during a third period of lockdown, the prime minister will come under increased scrutiny to answer why the decision was left so late to impose restrictions on travel from India, why travellers were given an extra three and a half days to come to the UK and why the rationale on which country is on or off these travel lists remains so murky.


Israel-Gaza violence: Twenty-six Palestinians killed in fighting with Israelis as violence engulfs t

14 May

Twenty-six Palestinians were killed in fighting today across Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, their health ministry has said.

Most of the casualties were shot by live ammunition, according to Palestinian officials, as a new wave of violence engulfed the West Bank on Friday.
A number of protesters were killed by the Israeli army there after throwing stones at troops, while one was shot for ramming his car into a military post and then trying to stab a soldier, the military said.
Another man was shot in the head in the West Bank town of al-Rihiya, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
Sixteen died in Gaza, where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched their most violent attack yet early on Friday morning.
Key developments:

  • 122 Palestinians have died, including 31 children and 20 women, 900 people have been injured
  • Eight Israelis have died, including two children and a soldier
  • Israeli forces assembled 9,000 troops along the Gaza border, as well as infiltrating Hamas tunnels
  • Lebanon fired three rockets towards Israel into the Mediterranean Sea in a show of solidarity to Palestinians
  • Hamas have fired thousands of rockets into Israel, with hundreds falling short and landing in Gaza
  • Israel launched its heaviest bombardment yet on Friday, destroying buildings in Gaza City
  • Mob fighting continued between Arabs and Jews in 'mixed' Israeli towns, with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin describing it as "senseless civil war"
Dr Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician, told Sky News 60 protests were organised across the West Bank on Friday.
Speaking in Ramallah, he described this week's fighting as a "really unprecedented uprising" and said those killed were "just participating in protest and demonstrations".
It comes after five days of airstrikes and rocket fire between Israel and Hamas.
Amid the widespread West Bank protests, the IDF fired warning shots at a group of demonstrators who had crossed the border from Lebanon to take part.
The army said that the group of youths damaged the border fence and set fire to the area before fleeing back to the Lebanese side.
A Lebanese police official said one protester who was injured by Israeli gunfire has died of their injuries.
Lebanon had fired three rockets towards Israel late on Thursday, in an apparent show of solidarity to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but they landed in the Mediterranean Sea and caused no damage.
On Friday, a pre-dawn offensive saw Israeli forces use tanks, artillery units and 160 aircraft to unleash its heaviest attack on Gaza so far.
A military spokesman said it was focusing on underground tunnels, which they believe are used by Hamas militants.
Hamas and smaller Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad continued to launch rockets from the strip into Israel on Friday.
Dr Barghouti told Sky News correspondent Mark Stone in Ramallah that "Hamas and others are saying they are ready immediately for a ceasefire, but Israel is refusing".
In a video statement on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "I said we would extract a heavy price from Hamas.
"We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force."
Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of an Israeli ground invasion, which would be a chance "to increase our catch" of Israeli soldiers.
Despite Egyptian and other international attempts at mediation, fighting is also ongoing in 'mixed' Israeli towns where Arabs and Jews live side-by-side. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described the rioting as "senseless civil war".
French President Emmanuel Macron has also spoken to Mr Netanyahu urging a return to peace in the region.
Security sources said neither side appeared to be backing down, but a Palestinian official claimed negotiations intensified on Friday.


Caroline Crouch: Hundreds attend funeral of British woman killed in Greece burglary

14 May

The funeral of a British woman killed in the presence of her baby daughter in Greece has taken place in front of hundreds of mourners.

Friends and relatives of Caroline Crouch travelled to the island of Alonissos on Friday, where she was laid to rest at a hilltop cemetery.
Ms Crouch, 20, was asleep with her Greek husband Charalambos Anagnostopoulos, 32, and their baby at their home near Athens on Tuesday when burglars broke in.
The mother-of-one was tied up and strangled and the family dog also killed, while Mr Anagnostopoulos was bound and gagged in a separate room.
Their baby was not harmed but witnessed her mother's death.
Ms Crouch's parents David Crouch and Susan Dela Cuesta were overcome with grief ahead of the service and were supported by friends and family.

Shops closed on the island in a mark of respect, as a black hearse arrived at the Agia Paraskevi church covered in white roses.
Mr Anagnostopoulos helped his daughter lay a flower on her mother's coffin.
Ms Dela Cuesta, who is originally from the Philippines, had travelled with her daughter's body from the family home to the island.
The burglars, who escaped with cash and jewellery, have still not been caught and a £260,000 reward is being offered for information by the Greek government.
Ms Crouch's widower managed to free himself from his bonds and call the police, but it was too late to save his wife.
He told local media this week: "I wish no one ever goes through what we went through last night. It was a nightmare.
"We begged the thieves not to harm us. We told them where the money was and asked them to leave us alone. The police will catch them."
Mr Anagnostopoulos said at one point he heard the burglars say to his partner "tell us where the money is, we will kill the baby", according to Greek media.