Could new Covid variants derail the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown? – BBC Newsnight

the uk's vaccine rollout has been a major success more than 20 million people in the uk have now had their first coronavirus jab we have now vaccinated over 25 million people more than half of adults in the uk have now had a first dose of the covered vaccine more people received the job it's all going so well so well we're looking ahead to what might be what we've been told should be discussions of pubs and reunions holidays and nightclubs but that's not what they're talking about in the corridors of whitehall instead there is a subject about which there is anxiety consternation even some fear i understand that advice is currently being drawn up for the prime minister by officials on stage one of the road map and whether we are ready to exit the first round of restrictions now in many ways this is a foregone conclusion on the three tests that boris johnson has set out vaccinations infections and hospitalization the uk is performing extremely well but it is on test four on the emergence of new variants and the possibility they may alter the balance of risk but i'm told there is most concern and officials are warning prime minister that it is those variants that could at least in the future have the strongest possibility of derailing the roadmap that he set out the foreign variants of kovid are currently at low levels in the uk though they are increasing but it is b1351 the south african variant which is causing most concern currently at 412 probable cases in the uk officials are worried because internal estimates suggest it might reduce some vaccine efficacy to less than 50 percent therefore if it were to become widespread in the uk it would significantly reduce the vaccine rollout's effectiveness therefore i'm told that officials from the variation and mutant task force within public health england have written to matt hancock today to inform him that they've traced variants being imported to uk from the following countries over the last 42 days including ireland france germany and the united states none are currently on the red list which subjects arrivals to mandatory hotel quarantine it will be up to him and the prime minister to decide whether the risk of variance is sufficiently grave to change that the chair of the home affairs select committee who pressed the prime minister on this issue of variance coming into the country in parliament just yesterday says that this is a symptom of a border which is still too porous we have a natural advantage in our geography in terms of having covered border measures in place but too often there's been delays in actually using that and not having for example the proper testing systems in place or the proper comprehensive quarantine system in place so for example we know that people can still go onto public transport home in order to quarantine at home whereas south korea makes sure that you can't do that if you're supposed to be quarantined and you have to have safe arrangements to get home i've also seen a document which instructs public health england's regional teams to begin to prioritize the contact tracing of the south african variant above all of the others now as we've said overall numbers do remain low but there is concern that a they calculate around 24 of the south african variant cases in the uk are not connected to international travel which might indicate a rising prevalence in the overall population and that b the growth of this variant at the moment is being inhibited by lockdown and when that goes that check on its expansion will be as well and right now what makes scientists worried about variance is still how little we know we have tests that can examine one part of how the immune system responds to a vaccine and therefore to a virus variant but it doesn't tell us the whole picture and so that's why we have to be cautious at this stage is that the south african variant is apparently better at evading at least one part of how our immune system responds but we don't know the whole picture yet and that's why we need to tread carefully this is one of those times where the conversation we're having in public is different to that of whitehall in private we're looking ahead they worried about what might unfold much sooner and what might yet derail the best load of plans louis goodall there while a spokesman for the government told us the uk has some of the toughest border measures in the world and that the red list was being kept under constant review public health england told newsnight that recent studies showed vaccines are effective against the dominant variants in the uk a spokesman added that officials were monitoring all variants closely and would take necessary actions when they see variance of concern in the uk i'm joined now by political editor nick watt who's got news on variants and vaccines from brussels nick yes well kirsty we heard from lewis there about concerns in whitetail about variants and in particular the south african one and in the last hour or so consort concerns voiced in brussels about the b117 variant otherwise known as the kent variant which was obviously behind the wave that we hope that we are now beginning to come out of in the uk now ursula van der leyen who's the european commission president she said that that variant is mostly to blame or for the rise in infections across the european union at the moment and then she then said well that shows the importance of getting on with the vaccination program then she talked about her plan that she outlined yesterday that could lead to a ban restrictions on exports of vaccines coming out of the eu there were two ideas at the heart of that the first one is reciprocity are countries that are receiving eu vaccines are they putting restrictions on things that they're sending elsewhere and proportionality is a country receiving eu vaccines are they doing better on their vaccination program uh as you live on the line very much gave the impression that that idea was alive and kicking but when you actually look here at the council conclusions that uh virtual meeting of all the eu leaders much much milder language it talks about we underline the importance of transparency as well as the use of export authorization so that's in her territory but then it says we recognize the importance of global value chains it looks like there were decisive interventions to water it down by angela merkel the german chancellor and mark rutter the dutch prime minister so descent in brussels but back here in westminster there was also descent and there was a toy rebellion yes so a rebellion when 35 conservative mps plus a teller voted against the extension until october of the coronavirus act uh which underpins many uh of of the measures uh during the pandemic there was no rebellion because there was no vote on the public health measures which underpin the current lockdown and the reason for that is the rebels are happy about that one because they will expire at the end of june when hopefully we reach the end of the road back but grandes graham brady charles walker not happy not happy that the coronavirus act will keep going until october not happy that matt hancock the health secretary was unable to say whether he might seek another extension of that act in october the government says look this is not really about restricting the liberties that you're so upset about it's things like allowing courts to meet remotely they say no no no it gives powers to police officers to visit homes of infected people but interestingly a year into this pandemic we're in a big lockdown boris johnson is still holding his party together because if all the opposition parties had voted against this today which they didn't he would have still got it through nick thanks very much indeed well i'm now joined by claire when i'm assistant professor of global health policy at the lsc and conservative mp henry smith who's chair of the all party parliamentary group on the future of aviation at gatwick airport and gatwick airport is in his constituency just to talk about the phe report claire went in first of all phe's assessment seems pretty straightforward so should we be putting more countries on the red list to keep the variants down or should there be a blanket ban on all international arrivals or should we be doing nothing so i think what we need to to recognize is that all the evidence from previous epidemics and indeed from covid over the last year has shown that travel restrictions such as red lists and just blocking you know particular travel patterns aren't going to work they're simply going to delay the problem people are able to go by a third location for example uh you know we've seen the entrance of the south african variant into the uk as a consequence but the other thing is we don't know where future variants may arise from uh and so if you are just doing it on historical data and where variants currently are coming from you might miss other variants which are emerging particularly in parts of the world which don't have the same capacities of genomic surveillance as we do here in the uk and so they won't even know it's a new variant until it's already in our country and if that happens multiple times and gets reseeded in multiple locations then we're looking at a serious problem so on the question of a blanket quarantine if if a red list doesn't work then we should be going for a blanket quarantine if we want to be sure i think so i think if you look to the countries that have had more effective border control measures in responding to this pandemic australia new zealand singapore hong kong they have implemented a blanket ban for anyone coming in with mandatory quarantine apart from essential workers such as uh hauliers or anyone who needs to get in the country and can't afford or you know people who work in the travel industry for example we should be thinking about that and i know it's difficult particularly in in the uk when we're heavily reliant on bringing in goods and food from europe for example but taiwan also is a similar situation it's an island which is heavily reliant on its neighbors for for food much more so than we are and they've managed to cope with this essential work only plus you know enhanced screening and testing for those who aren't subject to the same mandatory quarantine and just to clarify the the phe uh report is actually the very mutant task force of which phe is one group henry smith we've come so far is there a danger that we throw it away unless we become cautious and go as claire whitham says for blanket quarantine well i think we've seen a 12-month period of extreme caution and we cannot continue being in a virtual lockdown uh into the unforeseeable future we need to start opening our economy up again and that does mean international trade as an island trading nation and trying to get aviation and travel started again it is unsustainable for the broad well-being of our economy uh not to mention other health conditions that are being neglected as well not to have a balanced and more risk assessed approach to covet 19 as it mutates and it evolves and as all coronaviruses do it becomes less virulent so it is it is a question of getting that balance as we cautiously start to open up again and have that risk based on that but aren't you concerned that the reports are that the south african variant can be less than 50 percent it means that the the can mean the vaccine is has less than 50 efficacy surely that is a concern well there are lots of uh unknowns uh but what we have seen is that a lot of positive data with regard particularly with the oxford astrazeneca uh vaccine being a hundred percent effective as we heard the other day in terms of preventing deaths and serious illness uh from uh kovid 19.

As i say coronaviruses do evolve and develop and they muta mutate they become less virulent as they do that that's not to say that we shouldn't be cautious going forward and i think when we see the global travel task force reports uh in about nine or ten days time we will see a traffic light system of countries read through to to green in terms of uh the possibility of travel but we do need to get back to some form of normality otherwise we won't have an economy let me put that a point about the economy too clear when i'm because you know we aren't australia we aren't new zealand you know we have to have a regular trade for foodstuffs agriculture products and those things you know in a sense this is not just about people going on holiday this is about people's livelihoods and about the economy absolutely i understand that but we're also a year into this outbreak and it's well established now that actually you know it's not the measures that are are killing the economy it's the virus and we have to get the virus under control and you know the vaccine the vaccination effort by the government has been quite frankly astounding and we're in such a good position we don't want to jeopardize this most of our response has been focused on the vaccination strategy if we look at somewhere like chile chile is also one of the countries that's got one of the highest vaccination rates per capita in the world it's also in the last month in some of the highest cases or highest case numbers and highest hospitalization numbers because they didn't also consider the importance of travel borders at the same time as vaccination and they've had a lot of the brazilian variant coming into their country so i'm not suggesting we we shouldn't um consider the economy but i think we have to just get a handle on this virus first and you know another way we could try and do this is by trying to support countries elsewhere in the world to develop their own genomic surveillance capacities we know we've got a good capacity here in the uk and so why aren't we trying to build that capacity elsewhere to be able to try and detect these variants as soon as possible and that might sound like a difficult task but we've put up field hospitals very quickly we should be able to to mimic that with surveillance henry smith you were part of the tory rebellion on extending pandemic temporary provisions for six months today but i want to ask you would you rather lived in a sealed off country with no restrictions within that country or a poorest country with intermittent lockdowns and other members other measures because of an influx of variance which is the better well i depend i think it depends on where you are in terms of the uh pandemic i made a speech in the house of commons in january 2020 calling for much stricter border controls uh when kovit 19 was flooding into the country that is the time i think that we could and should have addressed the borders much more robustly but 12 months into effectively pretty much a rolling lockdown we do need to get the economy going again otherwise we are simply not going to be able to afford the public services that we need to protect ourselves and with a very successful vaccine roll out that seems to be extremely effective i think now is the time that we need to look to start reopening cautiously and in stages as the road map sets out but we do need to start very seriously approaching that exit strategy otherwise the damage done to our wider society our civil liberties our economy other health conditions and our general well-being uh i fear will be with us for uh many years decades perhaps to come thank you both very much indeed

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