The number of confirmed UK cases of the Covid variant first detected in India has almost doubled in four days, Matt Hancock said, as experts warned it could become the dominant type of the virus imminently.
Speaking on the day indoor hospitality and other venues were allowed to reopen, Hancock told MPs that 2,323 cases of the variant known as B.1.617.2 had been confirmed, up from 1,313 on Thursday, with 483 of those in the outbreaks in Bolton and Blackburn.
Speaking of a “race between the virus and the vaccine”, the health secretary rejected calls from Labour to consider a push to vaccinate all adults in the most affected areas, saying that surge testing was the best remedy.
Hancock confirmed that evidence indicated the variant was more transmissible than others seen so far, though it was not known by how much. He said 35,000 more tests had been distributed or collected in Bolton and Blackburn, along with a push to target those eligible for vaccinations, with 6,200 jabs carried out in Bolton alone over the weekend.
Of 19 people currently in hospital in Bolton with Covid, most were eligible for a vaccine but had not had one, Hancock said. “Vaccines save lives, they protect you, they protect your loved ones and they will help us all get out of this pandemic,” he said, adding that from Tuesday, those aged 37 would also be invited for vaccinations.
The emergence of the variant has prompted questions over whether India should have been added sooner to the “red list” of countries, arrivals from which most arrivals to the UK are banned. It has also raised concerns about the impact of reopening measures.
Responding in the Commons, Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, condemned what he said was too long a delay in stopping international arrivals from India: “Our borders have been as secure as a sieve. The delay in adding India to the red list surely now stands as a catastrophic misstep.”
As well as the reopening of many indoor venues on Monday, the bulk of distancing rules are due to be scrapped on 21 June, although Downing Street is refusing to say whether this will now happen.
Also on Monday, the Royal Statistical Society called for the government to swiftly publish the data behind its decision to go ahead with the latest stage of reopening, despite the presence of the B.1.617.2 variant.
The extent and speed of its spread was highlighted in data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Covid-19 genomic surveillance. This showed that almost 30% of Covid samples analysed in the week ending 8 May were found to contain the variant.
The figure comes from analysis of the data by Prof Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts, and suggests instances of the variant are rising rapidly.
“Data shows continued rapid increase of this new variant up to 8 May, with no sign so far that containment efforts are having much effect. Increases in the north-west are particularly concerning and do seem driven by areas where B.1.617.2 is dominant,” said Pagel.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the situation was worrying.
“There is no evidence that the recent rapid rise in cases of the B.1.617.2 variant shows any signs in slowing,” he said. “This variant will overtake [the Kent variant] and become the dominant variant in the UK in the next few days if it hasn’t already done so.”
While areas such as Bolton have been particularly hard hit by the variant, the Sanger data reveals it to be widespread across the country – although experts have previously said that the actual number of samples a week in some areas is low.
“Over 40% of sequenced cases in the week to 8 May came from just three local authorities: Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Sefton, where over 85% of cases were the new variant,” said Pagel. “The next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether current efforts can curb the spread and whether this pattern will be repeated across the country. Are we all going to be Bolton in a few weeks?”