A highly infectious variant of the Covid-19 virus continued to spread rapidly even during November’s lockdown in England, research has found, piling pressure on ministers to return to tougher national restrictions.
The Imperial College London research, which found that the new variant was more prevalent among the under-20s and was spreading fast to older groups, stated that the reproduction, or R, number was unlikely to drop back below 1 unless the government closed all schools.
In the government’s latest coronavirus U-turn, Gavin Williamson decided on New Year’s Day that all London primary schools would remain closed next week — only days after he ordered schools in 10 of the capital’s 32 boroughs to remain open. The education secretary was forced to listen to London boroughs after they argued that pupils and teachers crossed local authority borders every day.
The Imperial findings came as the NHS prepares both for a potential spike in cases after families in lower-tier areas mixed households during the Christmas break and as the health service struggles to cope with a shortage of vaccines. Covid-19 case numbers continue to rise, with the government on Friday confirming 53,285 new cases and 613 deaths, bringing the seven-day death toll to 3,876.
The UK’s chief medical officers have warned that the availability of Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be a problem for “several months” as they defended plans to widen the gap between doses from three to as much as 12 weeks to try to combat spiralling infection rates.
The data showed that the new variant increased the R number by between 0.4 and 0.7 even when “high levels of social distancing” were in place in England during the pre-Christmas lockdown. The current R number is estimated at between 1.1 and 1.3. It needs to be below 1 for the number of cases to begin falling.
Axel Gand, a co-author of the study, said the findings demonstrated a “quite extreme” difference in transmissibility between the two strains. “There is a huge difference in how easily the variant virus spreads,” he told the BBC.
The Imperial paper was published after minutes of the government’s official Sage scientific advisory committee showed that ministers were warned on December 22 that it was “highly unlikely” that R could be maintained below 1 without closing primary and secondary schools.
The Imperial paper warned: “A particular concern is whether it will be possible to maintain control over transmission while allowing schools to reopen in January 2021.”
Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University in London, said she believed it was “inevitable” that schools would have to close to stop the situation deteriorating further.
“The R number in the south-east was 0.9 during lockdown, but for this variant it was 1.5, which means trebling of cases in two or three weeks, and that was under conditions of lockdown. So what we’re looking at is very, very dangerous,” she said.
Government officials said the research was “broadly in line” with advice being given to ministers on the transmissibility of the new strain before Christmas, when policies were set for new tiers and arrangements for the festive season.
They said that the research would not therefore lead to a change in the national policy on the reopening of schools in January, but that the situation was being kept under review.
Meera Chand, incident director for Covid-19 at Public Health England, said the new analyses provided “further evidence of the increased transmissibility” of the novel variant, urging the public to abide by restrictions in place.
The threat of the new virus will add pressure on the government to speed up the distribution of vaccines, with Sage minutes warning that “current rates of vaccination are unlikely to significantly change the epidemiology” of the disease.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, tweeted on Friday that 1m vaccines had been delivered so far. The government has a target of 2m doses a week, a sevenfold increase from current levels.
Meanwhile, as pressures on hospitals increased, Mike Adams, the Royal College of Nursing’s England director, warned that existing NHS staffing shortages would make it difficult for the government to activate its Nightingale overflow hospitals.
“I have real concerns that the expectation that this mass rollout in capacity can happen is misplaced because there aren’t the staff to do it,” Mr Adams told Sky News.