The possible spread of the highly transmissible B.1.617.2 variant of Covid, first identified in India, threatens to hamper the timetable for removing lockdown restrictions, since a series of localised outbreaks have been detected.
Here are some possible actions that could be used to limit the spread of the variant:
This is the strategy under which small areas are targeted for mass tests of as many people as possible, including those with no symptoms or any suggestion they have been in contact with a Covid carrier.
It has been used previously to try to detect the spread of another fast-spreading Covid variant, first detected in South Africa. Last month, it was launched in a number of London boroughs, involving the use of door-to-door testing and an enhanced system for tracing contacts of people who are positive.
Surge testing, with associated genome sequencing to identify the spread of variants, has become the default response to such variants, and is now taking place in 15 locations across England, the Department of Health and Social Care has said.
It is being used in areas affected by the India variant. The army is assisting with the efforts, for example by handing out self-testing kits to residents.
This is a notably more recent development. While the national rollout of coronavirus vaccinations has progressed quickly, it has been prioritised by age and clinical vulnerability, rather than on factors such as location or job. Ministers and public health officials have argued that this is necessary to streamline the process.
While the cut-off age for eligibility is currently 38, it appears likely we could see areas where everyone 18 and above will be offered injections. The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said on Friday the government would “flex the vaccine programme” as needed.
There is definitely local demand. At one point on Thursday, Blackburn with Darwen council said all over-18s in the district could book a vaccine from next week, before reversing the plan. But sources in other areas affected by the India variant suggest similar plans could be put into effect.
But at a Downing Street press conference on Friday, Boris Johnson said the only change in affected areas such as Bolton would be to encourage more take-up of vaccines for those eligible, and to accelerate second vaccinations across the country for over-50s and those seen as clinically vulnerable.
These have never been enormously popular with ministers, and it is notable that when Boris Johnson imposed the third national lockdown for England early in the new year, there was an end to the system of regional “tiers” with different levels of restrictions.
As well as the tiers, which placed areas into pre-set categories of lockdown, ministers have also used one-off local restrictions to combat surges in cases.
But both ideas have proved controversial. Complaints have included the size of tiered areas, with entire counties placed into higher levels because of localised outbreaks, as well as the impact on hospitality venues and other businesses.
In October, the tier system threatened to descend into chaos as leaders in north-west England, led by the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, openly rejected a move to a higher restriction level. There are also questions about the efficacy of localised rules given that people will travel in and out.
It is nonetheless possible that areas affected by the India variant could have some more limited local rule changes, such as secondary school students being asked to continue to wear masks while others elsewhere are not.
Delaying the national reopening
There are no plans to change the easing of restrictions that come into force next week, including the reopening of indoor hospitality and some non-essential overseas travel, Johnson said on Friday.
However, he warned that the India variant “could pose a serious disruption to our progress” in pressing ahead with the much broader measures due from 21 June, which is meant to be the moment for the end of social distancing measures and the reopening of venues such as nightclubs.
Ministers have always held open the option of delaying stages of this process if infections rise, and one of the four tests in place for assessing next steps is about the presence of new variants.
Johnson would almost certainly face a political backlash if the roadmap’s 21 June plan were delayed or scaled back significantly, especially if the evidence remained that vaccines were effective against the India variant. There could be also be mitigating measures, such as the use of internal Covid certificates, showing vaccination or a negative test, to access some venues and events.