Troubling new claims have emerged today about the spread of the Indian Covid variant in the UK.
Ministers were told the mutant strain was in the UK on April 1 – but didn’t tell the public for two weeks, the Sunday Times reports.
And it was only another week later, on April 23, that India was finally placed on the ‘red list’ for travel into the UK.
With the B.1.617.2 strain now dominant in the UK, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi has tried to insist there was no delay.
Repeating lines already uttered by Matt Hancock, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It became a variant of interest six, seven days after we put India on the red list. It became a variant of concern two weeks after we put India on the red list.”
Asked if Britain was too slow to close its border, he replied: “I don’t agree”.
Mr Zahawi’s version of events is not technically wrong. But it’s not the full story either.
In fact, it’s also correct that a version of the Indian variant was identified by UK authorities on April 1, and was not published until April 15.
So how on earth can you pick fact apart from fiction? We’re here to help. Here is the timeline of how the Indian variant was discovered in the UK.
What Nadhim Zahawi said
BBC’s Andrew Marr: When did you first know the Indian variant was transmitting around this country?
Vaccines Minister Mr Zahawi: It became a variant of interest on the 29th April.
BBC: When did you first know?
NZ: So, when we found out, there were three variants of theIndian variant, as well as other variants, so there were hundreds of variants…
BBC: The Sunday Times reports this morning the government knew on the first of April. Is that true?
NZ: Well, there are hundreds of variants. Let me just – I tell you what is true – there are hundreds of variants. Viruses mutate, you know that. And this variant became a variant of interest on 29th, if I’m not mistaken, of April. We had placed it already on the register on the 23rd, a week before. Now, what Matt Hancock did is when it became a variant of interest he pushed much harder and said let’s treat it as a variant of concern straight away.
What actually happened
March 24: India revealed double mutant variant
India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare revealed the discovery of a “double mutant variant”.
It said not enough cases had yet been found to confirm the variant was responsible for soaring case numbers.
But it added: “These mutations have been found in about 15-20% of samples and do not match any previously catalogued Variants of Concern.”
It was later claimed India’s health ministry sat on this statement for two weeks and the words “high concern” were removed.
April 1: Indian variant declared ‘under investigation’ in UK
Public Health England declared Indian variant B.1.617.1 a “variant under investigation”.
While this was not “the” Indian variant (which is actually B.1.617.2), the two are very closely related.
According to the Sunday Times, this is also the date on which cases of the strain were first identified in the UK – and PHE told ministers immediately.
Yet no details of any UK cases were published until April 15.
It’s important to note that at this point, UK authorities had not actually separated out variants .1 and .2 in their research. Therefore, there was no declaration of the ’.2’ strain at this point.
This difference between .1 and .2 is how ministers are managing to claim “the” Indian variant hadn’t been flagged by this point. But the fact is, a very similar variant had.
Ministers announced four countries, including India’s neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh, would join the red list for travel into the UK from April 9.
Matt Hancock later defended this by claiming “positivity among those arriving from those countries was three times higher than it was among those arriving from India.”
But Test and Trace data showed Covid test positivity was 5% for travellers from India on March 25-April 7 – compared to 6% for Pakistan and 4% for Bangladesh.
April 15: UK public were told about cases in Britain
The B.1.617 variant (note: not .1 or .2) finally appeared on official statistics of cases in the UK for the first time.
By this point, 77 cases had already been identified.
At this point it was labelled a “variant under investigation” and not split into its sub-families, 1, 2 and 3, on the government website.
Days earlier, the weekly case rate in India had passed 1.4million, with media reports suggesting bodies were piling up at crematoria waiting to be dealt with.
India was finally put on the red list for travel to the UK, effective from April 23 at 4am.
April 27: Officials separated out the .1 and .2 variants
For the first time, the specific B.1.617.2 variant was declared separately in UK cases and named a “variant under investigation”.
So Nadhim Zahawi is right that, technically, ‘the Indian variant’ was only declared of interest four days after India went on the red list.
But he’s neglected to say variants with the “same parent lineage” were already under investigation since April 1.
Barely a week after being put under investigation, B.1.617.2 was reclassified as a “variant of concern”.
It came as startling new figures showed the number of cases in the UK had risen from 202 to 520.
Surge testing began in Bolton, which would later be identified as a hotspot for the new strain, and cases would continue to double (or more) every week through May.