That’s it from the UK blog team, thanks for following our coverage.
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Here are the main points from Boris Johnson’s press conference:
- The PM said it is not clear how much transmissible the India variant is to previous ones and there was “no evidence to suggest that our vaccines will be less effective in protecting people against severe illness and hospitalisation”.
- The government will accelerate plans to administer second doses to over-50s and the clinically vulnerable eight weeks after their first dose.
- Johnson said there is no need to delay moving to the next step of the roadmap out of lockdown on Monday. However, he said the Indian variant could cause “serious disruption” and affect any decisions that need to be made for the final stage on June 21.
- Professor Chris Whitty said he hopes everybody has their first vaccine dose by the end of July.
- The Army will be deployed on the streets of Blackburn and Bolton to give out tests to help the surge testing efforts, Jphnson said.
- There will be an acceleration of the vaccine rollout in Blackburn and Bolton including longer opening hours at vaccination centres.
UK Hospitality’s chief executive Kate Nicholls said it was “vital” financial support was offered if step four of the road map on June 21 was disrupted by any surge of the Indian variant of coronavirus.
She said: “The Prime Minister’s statement has introduced an element of doubt surrounding the dropping of restrictions on 21 June.
The situation will clearly be closely monitored but should the road map timings slip, it is vital financial supports are forthcoming, and that business rates are postponed until October.
“Businesses need a swift, publicly stated commitment that such supports would be in place in the event of a delay to step four, to give venues some reassurance as they look toward the challenges of viable trading.”
Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds reacts to the PM’s press conference.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has accused Boris Johnson of a “reckless failure to protect our borders” as the Indian variant threatened to derail progress to ending coronavirus restrictions in June.
The Labour MP said: “People across the country will be deeply concerned and tonight’s news brings into sharp focus Boris Johnson’s reckless failure to protect our borders in this crisis.
“Only a few weeks ago we urged Matt Hancock to designate this a variant of concern and respond with speed and resolve.
“As expert public health officials on the ground are saying we now need ‘surge vaccinations’ in areas of prevalence, enhanced contact tracing and crucially; to fix sick pay and isolation support.
“Having come so far we don’t want to be set back now.”
There is a “realistic possibility” that the Indian coronavirus variant could be as much as “50% more transmissible” than the Kent strain, the Scientific Advisory Group for emergencies (Sage) has said.
The minutes of the meeting between the government’s scientific advisers on Thursday said that it is “highly likely that this variant is more transmissible than B.1.1.7 (high confidence), and it is a realistic possibility that it is as much as 50% more transmissible”, PA reports.
Reaction from Labour MP Yvette Cooper to Johnson’s press conference.
Councillor Andy Morgan, Bolton council’s cabinet member for adult social services, insisted the council had been given some “flexibility” to vaccinate younger people, and would be offering vaccines to all over 18s in the three worst affected wards from Saturday.
He said: “Our interpretation of the guidance is that we can start to vaccinate 18s and over in BL3 [the affected postcode] tomorrow, subject to vaccination supply.”
He added: “We’ve got some flexibility locally to surge-vaccinate, but the biggest thing for Bolton is not being locked down, which would have been devastating for the town.
David Greenhalgh [Bolton’s council leader] has been lobbying every man and a dog all day on that, so we are relieved,” said Morgan.
Layla Moran, a Lib Dem MP, told Sky News she believes it is “essentially a failure of government strategy to contain variants coming into this country”.
She added: “What extra measures are they going to put in place to safeguard us?”
The Conservative leader of Bolton Council, David Greenhalgh, was disappointed that the government refused his plea for all adults in the worst affected wards in Bolton to be offered the vaccine.
Though Johnson did not announce a local lockdown for Bolton, Greenhalgh fears that the district could still be subject to tighter restrictions.
He said: “Yes, our rates of the Indian variant are going up, but while hospitalisations remain low and all evidence points to the effectiveness of the vaccine , the administration’s message to Government is ‘do not lock us down. Do not take us out of the road map.
“The majority of our cases are in their teens, 20s and 30s. Send us more vaccinations and allow us to vaccinate 18years+ now, that is the answer, not further restrictions.
“We have been here before. All that will happen is people will travel outside the borough, sometimes 50 yards up the road across a boundary to access hospitality. It does not work. And our hospitality is left struggling again, and on its knees.
“More targeted vaccines please and allow us to re-open.”
The press conference has now concluded.
On the PM’s four tests for moving to the next stage of the roadmap out of lockdown including variants of concern, Johnson replied: “I do think we are concerned about this variant that’s the purpose, we’re serving notice, it may cause disruption to our attempts to continue down the roadmap.
“But they don’t change the assessment of step three... the overall numbers across the country remain low and quite flat.
“What we’re saying is that the public need to be aware of this variant.”
On the possibility of delaying the easing of restrictions on June 21, Johnson said he cannot “speculate at this stage about that” because “there are still things we don’t know abnout the variant”.
He adds that in a few weeks we will know a lot more.
He adds that he realises today’s conference is “slightly disappointing” due the recent news of the new variant, as well as it posing “a real risk of disruption to our plans”.
“But it is also possible that we could still be on the right track.”
Reaction from Labour MP Angela Rayner to the government’s handling.
In response to a question about whether vaccines are being targeted to key areas, Prof. Whitty said if vaccines lose some “efficacy”, this tends to happen first with those who show mild symptoms rather than those likely to suffer most from the virus.
He added this is why those in more vulnerable groups are being prioritised and there are “very strong aims” to increase jabs in areas affected by the new variant.
Johnson said Colonel Russell Miller is being deployed to support local leaders in managing the response to the Indian variant on the ground.
The response will include surge testing, mobile testing units and the army will be on the streets handing out tests.
There will be “targeted new activity” in Bolton and Blackburn to accelerate the vaccine take-up, including longer opening hours at vaccination sites.
On whether people should travel from Monday, Johnson has urged people to think twice and wants people to recognise there is “extra risk and disruption to progress caused by this new variant”.
He added it is important that people in the areas seeing spikes recognise there is an “extra risk, extra disruption, a threat of disruption to progress caused by this new variant”.
Johnson cannot say 'for certain' how likely it is final restrictions will be eased on 21 June
In response to a question about how likely it is that the final unlocking of restrictions in England will happen on 21 June, Johnson admits he cannot say “for certain”.
Numbers of infections remain “low” across the country, he added, and the situation is different from last year because of vaccines.
People will have to “wait and see” whether the new variant is more transmissible and wait for more evidence that vaccines have cut risks of hospitalisations and deaths.
The PM is asked how soon he would implement restrictions if cases of “variants of concern” put pressure on hospitals. Johnson responds he would implement measures if it appeared the NHS was becoming overwhelmed.
Prof. Whitty is asked when the under 30s can except to receive the vaccine. He replies he hopes everybody has their first vaccine by end of July, saying “that is the aim”.
The PM said he is “very sorry” for the those living in Bolton and Blackburn where there is a surge of the Indian variant and he will not impose further restrictions on them.
Johnson added advanced surveillance and data gathering means if there is a danger of the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure we would see the signs early on and could react in good time.
Indian variant 'could make it more difficult to move to step four' of lockdown-easing in June, Johnson says
To clarify, Johnson said the roadmap out of lockdown remains in place but the Indian variant “could make it more difficult to move to step four in June”.
Johnson also said the NHS will also prioritise first doses for anyone eligible who has not yet come forward.
He urged people “to exercise the greatest caution because the choices we each make in the coming days will have a material effect” on England’s progress.
“We won’t be preventing businesses from reopening on Monday but we will be asking you do to your bit.
This includes getting the vaccine when eligible, getting free lateral flow tests and isolating when asked.
On the number of Covid-19 admissions in Greater Manchester NHS trusts, Prof. Whitty said hospital admissions are low but this is “early days”.
Now onto the seven-day case rates by age in Bolton, Prof Whitty said the Indian variant has been found in the region with cases going up significantly over the past few weeks, especially in the over 60s.
Onto the slide for the weekly number of sequenced cases of the Indian variant in England, Professor Whitty said this is on a steady upward curve. He added there is confidence the Indian variant is more transmissible than the UK strain.
The second slide shows the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 which is also decreasing.
Onto the slideshow with Prof. Chris Whitty, the first shows the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in the UK. The most recent seven-day average is 2,255 cases.
The PM added he “has to level” with the country, adding that the new variant could pose a “serious disruption to our progress”.
Johnson said: “We believe this variant is more transmissible... but we don’t know by how much.
“If the variant is significantly more transmissible, we’re likely to face some hard choices” when it comes to easing restrictions.
The PM said the plan remains for businesses including restaurants to reopen on Monday and he will not delay the roadmap out of lockdown.
Second vaccine doses for over-50s and vulnerable accelerated to combat Indian variant, PM says
Johnson has announced the government will accelerate second doses to the over 50s and people clinically vulnerable, eight weeks after their first dose.
Johnson said the Indian variant is “more transmissible” than the previous one “but we don’t by how much”.
Johnson has been told it is only marginally transmissible at the moment and no evidence suggests that the vaccines will be less effective against it.
Boris Johnson’s press conference is about to get underway.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to hold a Downing Street press conference in around ten minutes alongside Professor Chris Whitty which we will be liveblogging.
Following the meeting between Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheal Martin at Chequers, an Irish government statement said: “The Taoiseach and Prime Minister had constructive engagement across a number of issues, including the Covid-19 response, support for peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and the broader British-Irish relationship.
“Discussions focused on ways the two Governments can continue to work together to support all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and promote peace and prosperity on both a North/South and East/West basis.
“The two leaders, in particular, discussed the long journey of the Ballymurphy families for justice to vindicate the innocence of their loved ones.
“They also discussed British-Irish relations, and both are ambitious for the development of the next phase of the bilateral relationship framed around a number of areas of common interest.
“The Taoiseach and Prime Minister had a good exchange on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the value of working together. They agreed to remain in close touch over the coming weeks.”
Sturgeon has told MSPs that “pressing pause” would ensure that coronavirus measures would not have to be reimposed at a later date.
Announcing that both Moray and Glasgow will remain in Level 3 even as the rest of the country moves to Level 2 on Monday, the first minister said:
I know how disappointing this will be, but pressing pause for a few days will hopefully avoid a situation in which we have to impose even more restrictive measures over the next few weeks.
People are being advised not to travel in or out of the affected council areas, while the first minister added she was optimistic that increased testing and vaccination would help to curb the increased spread of the virus.
Following on from Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement just now, we have more from our Scotland correspondent Libby Brooks.
The situation in Glasgow, which is concentrated in Sturgeon’s southside constituency, is causing particular concern with evidence suggesting that the outbreak is being driven by the so-called Indian variant.
Sturgeon said that she expected accelerated vaccination to be part of the response in Glasgow but that health officials were anticipating further JCVI advice on whether there is any evidence about variations in the effectiveness of the vaccine in relation to the Indian variant.
We are expecting some advice from the JCVI perhaps later today or over the weekend and I want us to be in a position to consider that advice before we are absolutely definitive about what exactly the accelerated vaccination will be in Glasgow. I’m pretty sure there will be an accelerated vaccination aspect to this.
NHS Greater Glasgow Clyde and Glasgow City Council is also writing to all households in the G41 and G42 areas, asking people to get tested regardless of whether they have symptoms.
Glasgow took over as Scotland’s worst Covid hotspot according to latest official figures released earlier on Friday with 80.4 cases per 100,000 compared with 68.9 in Moray.
Sturgeon said that the situation in Moray was improving but that it was “prudent” for Moray to remain at level 3 for another week.
The government said a further 17 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of today, bringing the UK total to 127,668.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have been 152,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.
The government also said that, as of 9am on Friday, there had been a further 2,193 lab-confirmed cases in the UK. It brings the total to 4,446,824.
Glasgow and Moray will remain under level 3 restrictions as rest of Scotland moves to level 2
Glasgow and Moray will remain in level 3 as the rest of Scotland moves to level 2, Nicola Sturgeon has announced. Initially, both areas will remain at level 3 for a week, with a further decision made at the end of next week.
The situation in Glasgow, the first minister said, is causing even more concern than Moray, with initial research suggesting the outbreak could be being driven by the Indian variant of the virus.
- A Conservative council leader strongly hinted that the UK government will give permission imminently for the “surge vaccination” of all adults in areas hit by outbreaks of the Covid-19 variant first identified in India.
- Boris Johnson is to hold a Downing Street press conference on India variant concerns at 5.30pm with chief medical officer Chris Whitty. Earlier today the PM’s spokesman did not deny surge vaccines are being planned to target variant hotspots.
- Hospital bosses warned that the spread of the Indian variant could lead to a new surge in infections which puts hospitals still recovering from the huge impact of the pandemic under serious strain again.
- Portugal is to reopen to British visitors with negative PCR test results on Monday, despite the government extending a nationwide state of emergency until the end of the month as the country continues to recover from a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Wales could allow small food festivals and small live music and arts events to reopen next week if the Indian coronavirus variant poses no need to pause relaxing restrictions, first minister Mark Drakeford said.
- Downing Street appeared to reject calls for an increase in financial support for anyone self-isolating from its current paltry amount, insisting that the “vast majority” do self-isolate when they are told to despite a recent study finding that almost half of those displaying symptoms did not bother to stay at home, often because they could not afford to lose income from not working.
- GP patients must now be offered face-to-face appointments if they so wish, new NHS England guidance states. The Patients Association welcomed the new requirements, saying most patients prefer to see their doctor in person, but stressed how difficult people have been finding accessing GP services.
- The UK government will use Covid-19 vaccinations and testing to try to ensure vital UN climate talks this year go ahead in person, rather than as an online event.
- Most companies have no plans to require evidence of vaccination from their workers, customers or suppliers, research suggests.
The care regulator has “retreated to the sidelines” throughout the pandemic, leaving older people in care at risk and families afraid of speaking out for fear of losing the placement, a charity has said.
PA Media reports:
Judy Downey, chairwoman of the Relatives & Residents Association, said the Care Quality Commission (CQC)‘s failure to adapt has left care home residents “feeling bereft” of protection and scrutiny.
In a letter to chief executive Ian Trenholm, she said residents have been neglected by the system at a time when they needed it the most.
Since early March, indoor visits have been permitted by the government in care homes in England. From Monday, residents will be able to have visits from up to five designated loved ones as well as from a designated essential caregiver.
They will also be able to leave the home for more visits out, such as for a medical appointment, or to visit a day centre. But charities such as the R&RA have said too many families are struggling to get the visits the government says can go ahead.
She wrote: “CQC’s lack of action has continued to leave older people in care at risk. They have been neglected by the very system designed to protect their rights. CQC’s lack of voice and leadership have left the sector even more vulnerable and resulted in a further lack of trust in your authority.
“CQC’s failure to adapt to this changing world has left care users and their families feeling bereft of the protection and scrutiny specifically designed by parliament to protect them.”
The R&RA said helpline callers have told them of inflexible and blanket approaches to visits, the essential caregiver role not being implemented, end-of-life visits only being offered at the very end and visits out of the home only being able to take place under staff supervision.
Families are worried about speaking out, with the wife of one resident trying to secure more access told by a social worker to stop rocking the boat for fear they will lose the placement, it told the CQC. One caller reported having only had two visits throughout the pandemic.
And it said one home was closed for a month after a staff member tested positive, despite them being on leave at the time and no other cases in the home.
The CQC said it has taken “decisive action” throughout the pandemic, including undergoing more than 7,000 inspections and making it clear to providers that blanket approaches to visiting are unacceptable.
There is some good news and bad news about the variant first identified in India, based on the limited data available, writes Julian Tang, a clinical virologist and honorary associate professor in the respiratory sciences department at the University of Leicester.
The good news is that we think it does not contain the 484K/Q mutation that has been linked to some degree of vaccine resistance. So the current AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines should work relatively well against it, and at least protect most of us from severe Covid-19 disease and death. We do not have any evidence of this variant causing more severe disease, either – at the moment.
The bad news is that we think all the Indian variants contain the L452R mutation, which is also found in the Californian variant, and which seems to confer some vaccine resistance and possibly more transmissibility. Variant 2 does seem to be spreading quickly in the English population – possibly more quickly than even the existing B.1.1.7 “Kent variant”. It also contains a new mutation, and we are not sure what this does yet – it may also be enhancing transmissibility.
The UK government will use Covid-19 vaccinations and testing to try to ensure vital UN climate talks this year go ahead in person, rather than as an online event.
Alok Sharma, a former UK business secretary and now president-designate of Cop26, the climate summit to be held in Glasgow this November, said:
I have always been very clear that this should be the most inclusive Cop ever. I have been travelling around the world and it is very clear to me that people want to see a physical Cop, in particular developing countries want this to be face to face.
Sharma is working with health experts, the Scottish government and other officials on the best way to ensure the two-week conference, which 30,000 people were originally expected to attend, can go ahead.
This would include using vaccines and testing for Covid-19, Sharma said in a speech at the Whitelee windfarm near Glasgow on Friday morning. However, he said he could not yet go into detail on what would be involved.
After “listening carefully to feedback from students” and despite concerns over coronavirus, the University of Lincoln has reversed a decision to postpone in-person graduation ceremonies. Students had criticised the postponement.
Chris Spendlove, university registrar, told the BBC:
We’ve listened to our students, and although the situation is still very uncertain, we’ve taken the decision to plan for ceremonies in September to enable the class of 2020 to graduate as soon as possible.
The decision not to run ceremonies in September was taken with the best of intentions and the mistake we made was not to communicate as well as we could have done.
The university originally said events planned for Lincoln Cathedral in September would be held virtually, with physical ceremonies delayed until next April. But now a number of ceremonies will take place this autumn.
Indian variant could put hospitals under serious pressure again, warns trusts body
Hospital bosses have warned that the spread of the Indian variant could lead to a new surge in infections which puts hospitals still recovering from the huge impact of the pandemic under serious strain again.
NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts, has also asked the government and its medical and scientific advisers to guide them on how big a threat the variant known as B.1.617.2 poses to the NHS and when it might result in an influx of patients.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said:
This is clearly a fast moving situation where evidence is still emerging. It is the NHS’s job, as ever, to be ready to provide care to all those who need it. But we need as much help as possible from the government and the epidemiological and modelling community.
It would help trusts if, as fast as they can, government and their expert advisers could produce a robust and aligned view of the risk the NHS faces here. How big is the risk? How widespread could it be? When might it realise?
We know this risk assessment will need to be based on a best estimate of the complex interactions between the latest data on transmission including levels of infection, geographic spread and speed of transmission; vaccine uptake and resulting levels of immunity; and vaccine efficacy in relation to this variant.”
Hopson outlined several reasons why the Indian variant may end up becoming a major challenge for already hard-pressed hospitals.
Given the combination of potentially lower vaccine efficacy, seemingly much faster transmission of the virus and the fact that many people are still unvaccinated, there is a risk that this variant could lead to a large group of people becoming ill with Covid-19, putting significant pressure on the NHS once more. Trust leaders need this risk assessment as soon as possible so they can plan accordingly.
Wales could allow small food festivals and small live music and arts events to reopen next week if the Indian coronavirus variant poses no need to pause relaxing restrictions, Mark Drakeford has said.
PA Media reports:
The first minister said there were now 26 cases of the mutated strain of Covid-19 across Wales, up from 17 yesterday, with each case associated with foreign travel as opposed to community transmission.
Scientists believe the Indian variant may be more transmissible than the UK variant first detected in Kent last year, and may be linked to India’s second wave.
With indoor hospitality and entertainment venues due to reopen in Wales on Monday, the country’s chief medical officer, Frank Atherton, has advised a pause to further easements until more is known about the risk the variant poses.
Drakeford said he had planned to reopen “food festivals that you see held in very local communities, to small events like live music or arts”.
He said the UK government’s Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) group was expected to give its advice later on Friday, with the Welsh government’s own scientific advisers reporting back “very shortly”.
Drakeford also confirmed that though international travel would be allowed from Monday under a traffic light system, the government’s concerns about reimporting the virus meant it would advise people not to travel abroad during 2021.
“If ever there was a year to holiday at home and enjoy everything that the wonders of Wales has to offer then this surely is the year to do just that,” he said.
Drakeford said he did not “wish to make anybody feel guilty” about holidaying abroad, but wanted to ensure “people make those decisions with their eyes open”.
He also said it would be up to individuals to “weigh up the risks” if deciding whether to attend any of Wales’s delayed Euro 2020 football games in Azerbaijan and Italy during the summer.
A third of patients who died with Covid at a hospital in the south of England were probably infected on the wards, the BBC reports.
At Brighton and Sussex university hospital, at least 173 people who died with the virus first tested positive after more than a week in the medical centre.
The trust told the BBC that hospital infection rates “reflect almost exactly the levels of Covid transmission in the community”, but a former member of staff claimed infection control was inadequate.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the figures were “devastating” but that it was an issue affecting hospitals across the UK. “We think between 20 and 40% of the people who died from Covid across the country picked up the infection in their hospital,” he told the broadcaster.
But local MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle said the figures “seem to show that a much higher rate of people contracted Covid” at the hospital than in other hospitals nearby. “That is deeply concerning,” he told the BBC.
A tacit rejection, it appears, of calls (which we reported earlier) for the government to increase financial support for anyone self-isolating from its current paltry amount.
Downing Street insisted that the “vast majority” do self-isolate when they are told to. A spokesman for the prime minister told a Westminster briefing:
Throughout we have seen the vast majority of people abide by the ask to isolate when they have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace. And that has played an absolutely massive role in reducing the transmission rate of the virus, and we are sure people will continue to abide by that request.
But a recent study found that almost half of those displaying symptoms did not bother to stay at home, often because they could not afford to lose income from not working.
David Greenhalgh, the Conservative leader of Bolton council, has said the government is “looking to progress” the rollout of vaccines for all adults in areas with high transmission of the variant first identified in India.
Following a call with the health secretary, Matt Hancock, Greenhalgh told BBC Radio 4’s World at One:
This is an issue over capacity but we have had very, very constructive talks and certainly all the soundings are that they are looking to progress that as soon as possible.
The vast majority of our cases are in their teens, 20s and 30s at the moment and if we can get vaccinations to [people aged] 16 plus, which are licensed by Pfizer, then it will make a total transformation of the transmission as it moves forward.
R number rises slightly
The coronavirus reproduction number, or R value, in England has risen marginally on last week and is between 0.8 and 1.1, according to official government figures from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
R represents the average number of people each Covid-19 positive person goes on to infect.
When the figure is above 1, an outbreak can grow exponentially, but when it is below 1, it means the epidemic is shrinking.
An R number between between 0.8 and 1 means that, on average, every 10 people infected will infect between 8 and 10 other people.
Sage has also published the growth rate, which estimates how quickly the number of infections is changing day by day, at between minus 3% and plus 1% for England.
This means that the number of new infections could be broadly flat, shrinking by up to 3% every day, or growing by up to 1% every day.
However, Sage added these estimates do not necessarily mean R is definitively above 1 and that the epidemic is increasing, just that the uncertainty means it cannot be ruled out.
The UK government will use Covid-19 vaccinations and testing to try to ensure vital UN climate talks this year go ahead in person, rather than as an online event, Fiona Harvey reports.
Covid-19 infections continue to fall
The number of people infected with Covid-19 continues to fall across the UK, PA reports.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show around one in 1,340 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to 8 May - down from one in 1,180 the previous week. This is the lowest figure since the week to 5 September when the estimate, which is based on a sample of the population, stood at one in 1,400.
The figures do not include care homes, hospitals and prisons.
In Wales, around one in 4,230 people are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week to May 8 - down from one in 2,070 in the previous week.
In Northern Ireland, the estimate is around one in 1,430 people, down from one in 750.
The estimate for Scotland is around one in 1,250, down from one in 760 and the lowest since estimates began for Scotland in October.
British tourists will be allowed to enter Portugal from 17 May
Portugal’s tourist board has confirmed that UK holidaymakers will be allowed to enter the country from Monday, PA reports.
Visit Portugal said in a statement: ‘The Portuguese minister of state for foreign affairs announced today that British tourists will be allowed to enter Portugal as of the 00.00 of 17th of May, next Monday.
‘This decision will revoke the essential travel restrictions that is in place until the 16th of May.
‘Any person entering Portugal will have, in any case, to have an RT-PCR test done 72 hours before departure.’
Bury council has also today written to schools in the local authority telling them that face masks would still be required in classrooms from Monday - the date when the government had dropped the requirement for secondary schools in England.
The letter from the council’s department for young people and children tells school leaders:
Following discussions at the health protection board and with Bury’s local director of public health, Bury council is asking schools to retain the use of face coverings, as per the current arrangements, until further notice.
There have been instances where young people attending school or college have contributed to the spread of the more infectious variant. We believe it would be irresponsible to wait until we have high levels of the newer variants of Sars-CoV2 circulating in Bury before we act.
Rachel Hall here taking over the blog from Mattha Busby - please do send over any ideas and tips to email@example.com
The Welsh government has given more details about the new international travel rules, which come into force from Monday. People will be able to travel again but Wales is bringing in a “travel light” system.
- People arriving from green-list countries are not required to quarantine on their return to Wales, but they must book and pay for a mandatory PCR test on or before day two of their return. All travellers and members of their household will also be reminded about the availability of additional lateral flow tests to continue to monitor their health.
- People arriving from amber-list countries are required to quarantine for 10 days at home on their return. This is a legal requirement. They are also required to book and pay for mandatory PCR tests on day two and on day eight. Unlike in England, Wales does not operate a test-to-release scheme where an additional test can be taken on day five to reduce the period of quarantine. This is because some 30% of people who develop Covid-19 do so after day five.
- People arriving from countries on the red list are required to quarantine for a full 10 days on arrival in the UK at a designated UK port in a government-managed facility – a ‘covid hotel’ – at their own cost, starting from £1,750 per person. All UK entry points for arrivals from red-list countries are in England and Scotland, which means Welsh residents returning from those countries will need to quarantine outside Wales. Travellers are also required to book and pay for mandatory PCR tests on day two and day eight. All those who do not follow the rules for red-list countries face fixed notice penalties of £10,000.
First minister Mark Drakeford said:
This will not be like travel in the past. Everyone travelling abroad will have to have a test when they come home and for many people, they will need to quarantine when they get home. There are significant fines in place for those who do not follow the legal requirements.
Some countries are not yet opening up travel to people from the UK. It’s my strong advice that this is the year to stay at home and enjoy all that Wales has to offer.
Boris Johnson to hold press conference on India variant concerns
A prime ministerial address to the nation tonight, 5pm.
Bolton’s director of children’s services has written to parents, telling them pupils will still be required to wear face masks in schools “until further notice” because of the local Covid outbreak, despite the easing of the rules elsewhere in England from next Monday.
The letter sent today states:
In our locality and in neighbouring areas there are cases of a variant of SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes Covid-19). This variant is spreading quickly and has contributed to numbers of people with COVID-19 in some areas almost doubling in a week.
Following discussions with school leaders, councillors, Bolton’s incident management team and the director of public health, Bolton council is asking schools to retain the use of face coverings, as per the current arrangements, until further notice.
There have been instances where young people attending school or college have contributed to the spread of the virus. We believe it would be irresponsible to wait until we have higher levels of the newer variants of SARS-CoV2 circulating before we act.”
Back in the UK, nearly one in five pregnant women were forced to wear a face covering during labour, according to research by a charity, despite official health guidance saying they should not be asked to do so.
Women described feeling unable to breathe, having panic attacks or even being sick during labour because they were made to wear a face covering.
The research was carried out by the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, who surveyed 936 women who gave birth during December. It found that 160 of those who went into labour were made to wear a face covering. This goes against current joint UK guidance, published in July 2020 by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Segueing briefly into the biggest unanswered question of the pandemic, the origin of the novel coronavirus remains unclear and there is still not yet enough evidence to say conclusively if it occurred naturally or was caused by a laboratory leak, a group of senior scientists say in a letter reported by Reuters.
“Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” said the 18 scientists, including Ravindra Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, in a letter to the journal Science which criticised the World Health Organization (WHO) report into the beginnings of the pandemic in Wuhan and called for further investigation.
Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as “likely to very likely,” and a laboratory incident as “extremely unlikely”.
Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration. Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident. Notably, WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus commented that the report’s consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was insufficient and offered to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility.
We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.
GP appointments face-to-face to resume but concerns remain over access
GP patients must now be offered face-to-face appointments if they so wish, new NHS England guidance reported by health publication Pulse states.
The Patients Association welcomed the new requirements, saying most patients prefer to see their doctor in person, but stressed how difficult people have been finding accessing GP services.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said:
We called for the restoration of in-person appointments as the default option when we published our second Pandemic Patient Experience report, which showed starkly how patients have been struggling to access primary care in a way that meets their needs.
It will be a great relief to many patients to know that their GP should now unquestionably be offering face-to-face appointments.
We now look to general practice to make this a reality. We recognise that GPs are very busy, and that this will be demanding for them. But patients are counting on them to rise to the challenge: it is not acceptable for NHS services to be setting up systems that work for them but not for patients.”
The NHS’s new instructions to GPs require them to make, “a clear offer of appointments in person” and “respect preferences for face to face care unless there are good reasons to the contrary.”
GPs will still be allowed to arrange a remote appointment in the first instance, if the patient reports having Covid symptoms.
The Indian coronavirus variant has been detected in a number of areas in England which are reporting the highest rates of infection, data suggests.
PA Media has the story:
Data from Public Health England (PHE) shows a rise in cases of the Indian variant of concern from 520 to 1,313 this week in the UK, with the agency saying infections were “rising in the community” and it was assessing the impact and severity.
Although the Indian variant is thought to be highly transmissible, vaccines are expected to be effective against it.
The majority of the 1,313 cases of the B.1.617.2 variant, which was first identified in India, are in England, with PHE reporting 35 in Scotland, 11 in Wales and 12 in Northern Ireland.
The Department of Health and Social Care said most cases are in the north-west of England, with some in London.
The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, has submitted a request to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation for all over-16s in Bolton, along with the rest of the Greater Manchester area, to receive a vaccination “to mitigate the risks of spread in those communities where we are seeing more transmission”.
Earlier this morning, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said trials of vaccinating all adults in multi-generational households have been “successful” and could be a “tool” for use in areas where there is a surge of the Covid-19 variant first identified in India.
“The multigenerational household trials, in Luton and in Slough and elsewhere, have been good, they have been successful, which is why I think it’s a tool in our armoury,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Asked why this was not being implemented now, he said: “The clinicians will make those sorts of recommendations, the decisions, and we will flex the vaccination programme accordingly.”
My colleagues Josh Halliday and Helen Pidd report on Lancashire’s director of public health, Sakthi Karunanithi, joining Blackburn with Darwen public health director, Dominic Harrison, in expressing frustration with national authorities in not rapidly surge vaccinating in badly hit areas.
“I share Dom’s fury,” he told BBC Radio Lancashire. Karunanithi said the region of 1.5 million people may only be “three or four weeks” away from seeing more widespread outbreaks of B.1.617.2, as in Blackburn with Darwen, where the infection rate is five times the UK average.
“At this point in time I’m having to painfully accept that we can’t move faster with the vaccines in Lancashire but we will continue to [ask the government] for us to move faster.”
Payments to allow people with Covid symptoms to self-isolate need to be increased sharply or a return to normal life could lead to a resurgence in infections and deaths, ministers are being warned.
Two leading thinktanks have proposed that the government funds grants for employers and the self-employed, on a similar basis to the furlough scheme, to encourage more people to isolate.
Doctors, public health experts and opposition parties believe that low adherence to the request to self-isolate has been a major flaw in Britain’s response to the pandemic and allowed coronavirus to spread.
One recent study found that almost half of those displaying symptoms did not bother to stay at home, often because they could not afford to lose income from not working.
British holidaymakers hoping to fly to Portugal as soon as UK travel restrictions lift are facing uncertainty after the country’s government decided to extend its “state of calamity” until at least the end of the month.
As of 17 May, the “stay in the UK” order will lift, meaning people will be able to travel to green list countries such as Portugal without self-isolating on their return. But guidance published on the Portuguese government’s website today stated that ministers had approved a move to continue the current level of lockdown.
UK holidaymakers are currently prohibited from entering the EU, and holiday firms have reported huge demand for trips to Portugal following the publication of the green list.
Cristóvão Norte, Portuguese MP for the Algarve, criticised the decision, telling BBC Breakfast “there are no reasons, nor political or scientific reasons to maintain restrictions for travel from the UK to Portugal”.
Thousands of British football fans are hoping to travel to the city of Porto for the all-English Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea on 29 May.
Uefa previously confirmed that 6,000 tickets would be made available to each of the finalists, with the final capacity limit at the Estádio do Dragão still to be fixed.
According to the BBC, Portuguese cabinet office minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said in a briefing on Thursday she had “no information to give yet” when asked if restrictions on travel from the UK would soon be lifted.
As well as the limit on ticket sales, fans will have to fly in on charter planes, arriving and leaving “on the same day”, the BBC said.
Around 45,000 pubs will reopen next week across the UK when lockdown restrictions are further eased, serving more than 3m pints, it has been estimated.
PA Media report:
The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) said it believes around 2,000 pubs – 5% of the total – would remain closed despite indoor reopening and it criticised heavy restrictions including physical distancing and table service only.
The trade body predicted that beer sales for Monday could be 65%, or 1.6 million pints, lower than a normal Monday pre-pandemic, which it warned is below the break-even point for most pubs.
The government has been urged to commit to lifting all restrictions as planned on 21 June, including removal of social distancing and allowing bar service to resume.
BBPA chief executive Emma McClarkin said: “Our pubs have been preparing for this Monday over the last couple of months. We expect 45,000 pubs to open across the UK and three million pints to be served on Monday alone.
“However, that is 1.6 million pints less than what they would have sold on a typical Monday before the pandemic. This is because 2,000 pubs will still remain closed and pubs that do open are limited in their sales by table service and no standing drinking.
“This is by no means the end of the crisis for our sector. We need pubs fully reopened without any restrictions at all on June 21 if they are to survive and trade viably.”
In other news, couples set to marry in England will be able to invite up to 30 friends and family to the wedding or civil partnership ceremony from Monday but dancing is still being advised against.
Under the government rules up to 30 guests can attend a reception or celebration at a Covid-safe venue that has been allowed to open, an increase from a maximum of 15 people who have been allowed at such events since 12 April.
Physical distancing between people who do not live together is not required. Dancing is however advised against due to the increased risk of transmission, although the couple are allowed to have their first dance.
Whether guests across the country will remain in their seats en masse remains to be seen but the guidance stresses that people should still be careful, stating:
Instead of instructing people to stay two metres apart away from anyone they do not live with, people will be encouraged to exercise caution and consider the guidance on risks associated with Covid-19 and actions to take to help keep friends and family safe. You should always make space for other people to keep their distance if they want to.
Although there is no requirement to be Covid-secure in a private garden, the organiser should take all reasonable steps to limit the risks of transmission and must adhere to the gathering limit of up to 30 people.”
Hancock hails 'remarkable' success as vaccines save estimated 12,000 lives
A story from overnight ... Covid-19 vaccines have so far prevented at least 33,000 hospital admissions in England and saved almost 12,000 older people’s lives, data suggests.
PA Media reports:
Figures from Public Health England (PHE) reveal that, up until the end of April, vaccines stopped at least 33,000 people aged 65 and over from needing hospital treatment and saved 11,700 lives among those aged 60 and over.
The PHE study compared the observed number of deaths with the number of deaths that would have been expected if the vaccine had not been given during this time period.
Using this method, PHE estimated that 9,900 lives were saved among people aged 80 and over, 1,500 in those aged 70 to 79 and 300 in those aged 60 to 69.
When it comes to hospital admissions, some 3,900 admissions were prevented in those aged 65 to 74, 13,100 in those aged 75 to 84 and 16,000 in those aged 85 and over.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “In only a few short months, our Covid-19 vaccines have saved the lives of over 11,700 people and stopped over 33,000 from being hospitalised. After a heartbreaking and difficult year, that is remarkable.
“That’s tens of thousands of parents, children, siblings, friends and loved ones saved - and millions more who haven’t had to feel the impact of that horrible loss too.”
Most companies have no plans to require evidence of vaccination from their workers, customers or suppliers, research suggests.
PA Media reports:
The British Chambers of Commerce said its study indicated the government should set out plans about what operating conditions businesses will need after the final phase of the roadmap.
Its survey of more than 1,000 businesses suggested that social distancing and hand sanitising were the Covid-19 measures firms were most likely to expect to continue to have in place over the next year.
Almost four out of five respondents said they were not planning to require proof of vaccination from customers, suppliers or employees, with 5% saying they had implemented such measures.
In Scotland, there is concern that a lifting of restrictions could be premature, with public health experts have warned that a spike in coronavirus infections in Glasgow could include the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, told BBC Good Morning Scotland:
The idea is certainly premature, in fact the government should be considering the opposite. In Scotland as a whole we’ve actually seen the number of new cases double in the last week, and while the cases are so low it’s hard to see exponential rises.
This is what early exponential rises look like and we’re seeing loss of control of the pandemic in many parts of Scotland, and the situation is likely much wider and other places will follow unless action is taken to actually prevent this and pre-empt this now.
She said the arrival of new variants in the UK was not inevitable and was a result of a “failed border policy”, pointing out that areas which have had comprehensive border restrictions such as Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and south-east Asia have not imported many of these concerning variants.
The coronavirus variant B.1.617.2, first identified in India, has been designated as a “variant of concern” by Public Health England because it is thought to be at least as transmissible as the variant detected in Kent last year, known as B.1.1.7, which is now dominant in the UK.
The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said the situation in Glasgow is being monitored “very closely”, with cases in the city at 70.9 per 100,000 people in the seven days to 10 May, according to the latest data yesterday.
Moray currently has the highest rate in Scotland at 98.1 cases per 100,000 and is unlikely to join the rest of the country by dropping down a level under the Scottish government’s five-tier system as restrictions ease on Monday.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the 21 June lifting of lockdown across the UK could be in doubt if the Indian variant causes increases in cases in elderly people and a rise in people needing hospital care.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
I think the big question is how many of people who are getting the Indian variant will end up requiring hospitalisation. And at the moment the hospitalisation rate doesn’t seem to be increasing yet, although if this becomes much more common we’ll almost certainly see some increase, so I think it’s certainly a concern.
I think the step four is in doubt in June now, but we really need to see what impact it has on severe disease before we can really be certain.
Asked why 21 June could be in doubt, he said:
Well, because if the epidemic continues to increase, if the Indian variant of the epidemic continues to increase at the same rate as it has over recent weeks, we’re going to have a huge number of cases by June.
The issue though is that because it seems to be spreading in unvaccinated younger people at the moment and not yet that much more active in older people maybe we’ll be able to weather it and we’ll still be able to have the step four in June.
But if that increases cases in elderly and starts to increase hospitalisations, and puts pressure on the NHS again then I think step four would be in doubt.
The UK government “will take nothing off the table”, including local lockdowns, in the face of surging variants. But surge testing is the focus.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast:
Over a year of dealing with this pandemic suggests that the most effective way of dealing with this, because we have had such a successful vaccination programme, is the surge testing by postcode, the genome sequencing and isolation, so that is our focus, that is our priority.
But we will take nothing off the table, whether it is regional or national further measures that we would need to take, we will deal with this.
The Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said he would not welcome local lockdowns to combat the spread of the India coronavirus variant. He told Sky News:
My heart sank yesterday when I heard the prime minister reintroduce the possibility of local lockdowns; they really didn’t work. We were under different forms of local lockdown pretty much for the whole of the second half of last year and it took a huge toll on people, obviously on our businesses and our economy.
We are in a different situation this year because, even though we are seeing spread of the Indian variant in Bolton, we are not seeing the same numbers of people going into hospital because obviously older people are more protected now. So we don’t need to have the same response that we had last year. We do believe if we move quickly on vaccination we can take away any risk of a local lockdown.”
We have a lot of younger people in places like Bolton who are in quite insecure work, so if they become ill they fear they won’t be paid if they have to take time off work, and this question of self-isolation support has never been dealt with by the government all the way through this pandemic, and it’s why some of the less affluent parts of the country often have the highest case rates, and it does really need to be fixed.
So vaccination, self-isolation support, those are the things the government should be doing, not doing what can seem the easier thing of just putting local communities under lockdown.
Speaking about rising cases in Bolton, he said the government needed to go further and use vaccine supplies to inoculate the younger working-age population and student population.
That is what is needed if we are to make the most decisive and effective intervention into this situation that we can right now. We recognise the pressure on vaccine supplies all over the country but we have been moving at a pace where we have been treating all areas equally and I think the time has now come to recognise areas with the highest case rate do need to be able move more quickly down the ages.
Wales to maintain 2-metre distancing rule 'largely because of the Indian variant'
The 2-metre physical distancing rule in Wales will not change on Monday, mainly due to the Indian variant, Mark Drakeford has said this morning. The first minister told BBC Radio 5 Live:
Within your own household bubble or extended household you’ll be able to make decisions about who you hug ... But we’re not yet thinking, largely because of the Indian variant, we’re not going to change the rules about people more generally. We expect the 2-metre social distance to be sustained.
Asked whether people will be able to hug a family member outside of their household bubble or extended household, he replied:
I’m afraid you have to wait a little bit longer. We can change the rules, we don’t have to wait two or three weeks. If we get advice that says it’s safe to move ahead on that, we’ll do so as soon as we get that advice.
But we are just pausing to make sure that we have the best possible evidence about the newly emerging risks that there may be because of [the] Indian variant.
Therefore, plans to allow smaller events to reopen, as well as relaxing rules on people meeting have been “paused”, he added, speaking to Sky News.
We had thought of moving ahead with the reopening of smaller events, we’ll pause that for a moment. We were thinking of liberalising the rules in the way in which people can meet together, not just in their extended household but beyond that, we’ll pause that for the moment.
If the advice on the Indian variant is that it is safe to move ahead, we won’t need to wait for the end of our next three-week cycle to do those things, but the Indian variant is giving us cause for concern.
We don’t know enough about whether it is more transmissible than the Kent variant, we don’t know enough about whether the vaccination programme is as effective in dealing with it as it is with other variants we have in Wales, and until we’re a bit clearer on that I think it is sensible to take a precautionary approach.
In Wales, officials have “decided to hold back” on further relaxing some lockdown restrictions following Monday, when indoor hospitality and entertainment venues reopen, due to concerns about the Indian variant.
The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
There were 17 cases of the Indian variant in Wales yesterday and over 700 in England. And as we were just hearing, there’s quite a concentration of that in the north-west of England and there’s a lot of traffic between the north-east of Wales and the north-west of England so we were considering a small number of further easements from Monday but have decided to hold back on those until we get the advice from Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) met yesterday, our own scientific advice which we’ll receive imminently, just to make sure that we are continuing to take a precautionary approach in case the Indian variant is on the march, and therefore Wales would be vulnerable to it as well.
Zahawi, doing the rounds on the airwaves for the government this morning, has warned there could be a delay to the planned easing of restrictions on 21 June if infection rates rise significantly.
But Monday’s easing of restrictions would still go ahead despite concerns over the variant first found in India, he told LBC:
The way we don’t have to do that is by everybody doing their bit, by taking the two tests a week, doing your PCR test in those areas, and to isolate, isolate, isolate.
We have got to break the cycle of infection, because one of those big tests was infection rates have to be suppressed, and the other big test is variants. If those cause a problem, then the tests will fail. The four tests have to be met for June 21.
Speaking to Sky News, he stressed there was currently no evidence that the India variant “escapes the vaccines or is more severe in its impact on people”.
But Hunter said it seemed to be “a little bit more resistant from the early indications”, indeed “a little bit more resistant than the Kent variant”, though not as resistant as the South African variant.
And when you look at the numbers of cases that we’re seeing, it is predominantly increasing in those people who are of an age that won’t really have had much access to vaccines so far.
So it’s not all bad news because even people who get the infection seem to be getting a much milder infection if they’ve had vaccine, and we’ve heard doctors talking about this from India, saying that people after vaccine are still getting the Indian variant but much less severely.
And there’s some evidence indeed in the UK that once you’ve had the vaccine you may well still get Covid but it’ll be substantially less severe generally than it would have been otherwise.
Government considering 'surge vaccinations' in areas of concern
Good morning, good afternoon and good evening to everyone joining our live coverage of Covid developments in the UK.
The top story this morning surrounds concern that the spread of a variant first found in India could derail the planned easing of restrictions in England, with officials considering “flexing” the country’s inoculation campaign and adopting a policy of “surge vaccinations”.
This morning, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said that younger people in areas where there is a surge of the variant initially identified in India could be vaccinated sooner. He told Sky News:
The clinicians will look at all of this to see how we can flex the vaccination programme to make it as effective as possible to deal with this surge in this variant, the B.1.617.2.
They will make those decisions and we will be ready to implement, whether it’s vaccinating younger cohorts. We have been doing some work on multi-generational households where we vaccinate the whole household, over-18s, and of course the older groups who are already eligible.
Or, bringing forward the second dose – we look at all of that and be guided by the clinicians as to what we do on that.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said surge vaccination would “possibly” work, but that it was “not an easy question either way”. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
The downside of that is who do you take the vaccines from? And one of the difficulties with vaccination is that it does take a couple of weeks to work, so if you’re moving vaccines away from areas where they currently don’t have much Indian variant and that is increasing, by the time you start getting round to vaccinating that group again when maybe the epidemic, the Indian variant, is increasing rapidly again, probably you might well have been able to stop that if you hadn’t diverted vaccine to surge areas. So it’s not an easy question either way, to be honest.
Meanwhile, surge testing is under way in areas of the north-west of England where cases involving the Indian variant of coronavirus are on the increase. The “variant of concern” has been detected in Bolton, Greater Manchester, as well as in Blackburn, Lancashire, and Sefton in Merseyside, which have all seen rates rise rapidly.
Blackburn with Darwen council initially said on Thursday that it would be offering vaccines to all over-18s from next week following the increase in cases, but later said that, although additional vaccine clinics are being set up, the jab would only be offered to those eligible under current government guidance.
The area’s director of public health, Dominic Harrison, tweeted that the authority had asked the NHS to “surge vaccinate” but the request was refused.
In Bolton, the area with the highest rate of cases, with 553 new infections in the seven days to May 9, mobile testing units have been deployed and door-to-door PCR Covid testing has been offered to 22,000 residents.
A vaccine bus has been set up to increase uptake among those who are eligible and a rapid response team of 100 nurses, public health advisers and environmental health officers has been sent in.
I’m Mattha Busby and I’ll be bringing you updates for the next couple of hours. For any tips or thoughts, drop me a line on Twitter.