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

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.

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