How worried should we be about the Indian variant?
We've all witnessed the terrible scenes of India's struggle against coronavirus in the past few weeks. A new variant of the virus has taken hold in the country, overwhelming its healthcare system and claiming many lives.
The same variant has been found in the UK - with nearly 3,000 cases identified in different spots across the country. So, I wanted to update you on the available evidence and what the new variant may mean for our roadmap for reopening.
Early data suggests that the Indian variant could be up to 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant which was behind the UK's huge winter spike in infections. However, it's still too soon to draw an accurate conclusion on how easily the new variant spreads.
The UK's world-beating vaccine programme is a game-changer. Unlike a few months ago when the Kent variant swept across the country, the Indian variant may struggle to take hold in the UK. That's because more than 70 per cent of British adults have had at least one jab.
One dose of either Pfizer or the Astra Zeneca vaccine can cut household transmission of coronavirus by up to half. That makes it much harder for a new variant to take hold in this country. And when the virus does spread, a single vaccine dose reduces the risk of serious illness by up to 60 per cent - saving lives and easing the burden on the NHS.
The Prime Minister confirmed today that there is increasing confidence amongst experts that the vaccine is effective against all variants, including the Indian variants. Again, this is early data and we won't know for sure until we see how the vaccine performs in the real world, but so far it looks promising.
All this means that the UK's vaccination programme is now racing the Indian variant. To stop the spread of this new variant, the NHS has sped up its vaccination programme in hotspot areas and the top nine priority groups will be offered their second jab at eight weeks, instead of twelve.
I think we can be optimistic about the government's roadmap for reopening which marks the 21st of June as the earliest opportunity to end coronavirus restrictions. The vaccine programme is succeeding and both jabs appear to be effective against the new variant. However, it's right that we follow the data and apply caution as we reopen.
To make this the last lockdown, we must all do our bit to stop the spread of the virus - and this new variant. It is essential that we all get our jab when offered and go for our second dose when invited. If you are eligible but haven't booked your appointment, please do so now.
We must do more though. A third of cases are asymptomatic and we may unknowingly be spreading the virus. As we return to normality, it's vital we test ourselves twice a week with the rapid tests the NHS provides. By identifying these cases, we can slow the spread of the virus - and you can protect yourself, your family and friends, and your community.
So, in short - the data in the next four weeks will ultimately determine whether the UK can fully reopen on the 21st of June. We can be optimistic that normality will soon be restored - but to do so, we must do our bit by getting vaccinated and testing ourselves regularly.