In three weeks, the government says it hopes to remove all legal limits on social contacts as the nation emerges from its Covid lockdown. Nightclubs and music venues could reopen and larger sporting events allowed to resume without crowd restrictions.
That is the hope. The actuality may be very different as fears rise about the spread of the India variant. Some reports suggest this is 67% more transmissible than previous variants, though Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, counsels caution. “Sixty seven percent is an upper likely limit. The lower is around 20% or less. We will soon find out the right figure, however,” he said.
New daily Covid-19 cases currently stand at 3,000-4,000. Should this jump to 6,000 next week and 12,000 the following week, then it will be clear that the virus is spreading very rapidly – although rapidly rising infections themselves are not the main worry.
The key concern is the impact this rise will have on hospitalisations. With more than half of the UK population having now had at least one vaccine jab, the link between contracting the disease and ending up in hospital has been greatly weakened. “It means it will take many more cases to put a person in hospital,” said Woolhouse.
That should protect the NHS from the threat of being overwhelmed by serious Covid cases, though it is not yet known with any certainty that this will happen, and the situation will be studied closely by health experts in coming days. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that the younger people who now make up a growing proportion of hospital cases are suffering less serious symptoms compared with those hospitalised with Covid last winter. That could also ease pressures on hospitals.
However, it is clear that although the vaccination programme is doing well, the fact that a second jab appears to be needed more urgently to provide protection against the India variant compared with other virus versions means there is now intense pressure to complete Britain’s immunisation programme more quickly than planned. “The vaccine rollout is going very well,” said Woolhouse. “But it is now imperative we go even faster. Let’s not settle for 600,000 jabs a day. We should aim at a million.”
The timetable is tight, said Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University. “In the past, there was a lag of two to three weeks between cases rising and hospitalisations going up, and 21 June is only three weeks away. That is when we might find hospitalisations shooting up, and so we will have to think very fast – or face another lockdown this summer.”