The new Delta variant of coronavirus appears to be about 40% more transmissible than the variant it has largely replaced, Matt Hancock has said, making government decisions about whether to ease restrictions in England on 21 June “more difficult”.
Saying that under-30s will be called to begin vaccinations from next week, the health secretary confirmed it was still possible the reopening programme could be delayed or some rules kept in place.
“We consider all options,” he told Sky News.
The transmissibility of the Delta variant, first identified in India, has been seen as a central factor to the decisions over whether to remove most remaining restrictions in England in a fortnight, with the decision due to be made later this week.
Estimates have said the Delta variant could be anywhere between 30% and 100% more transmissible than the so-called Alpha variant first identified in Kent. But asked for the latest information, Hancock gave a figure of 40%.
“That means that it is more difficult to manage this virus with the new Delta variant,” he said. “But crucially, after two doses of vaccine we are confident that you get the same protection that you did with the old variant. So the good news is that the vaccine still works just as effectively.”
It was, he said, still too early to decide what might happen on 21 June: “The prime minister and I and the team will be looking at all of the data over this week … The critical thing is to see whether the four tests we have set have been met.”
Saying the Covid vaccination programme had “severed but not broken” the link between infection rates and hospitalisations, Hancock said adults under 30 would be able to seek first injections from next week.
“We are not saying no to 21 June at this point,” he said. “We’ll keep watching the data for another week, and critically, watching that link from the number of cases to the number of people who end up in hospital. And it is absolutely true that the number of people ending up in hospital is broadly flat at the moment, while the number of cases is rising, showing that link is not absolute, as it once was.”
After the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds on Friday, Hancock hinted strongly he would like to see pupils offered jabs, as called for by school leaders.
The matter would be considered by the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, he said, and with those aged 18-30 still to get doses, a decision would not be needed for a few weeks.
“But we know that the vaccine both protects you and helps stop you transmitting,” Hancock said. “Making sure that we don’t have whole bubbles having to go home, and the isolation, especially as we saw over the autumn for instance, that has big upsides for education.”
Asked about the delay in putting India on the red list for travel, weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh, blamed by critics as the reason why the Delta variant has become dominant in the UK, Hancock insisted the data had supported this decision.