Lockdown could be REVERSED if ‘concerning’ cluster of South African variant spreads, experts warn

LOCKDOWN could be put into reverse due to the “very concerning” South African variant, scientists saw.

A large cluster of the strain has been reported in London, where residents have been urged to get a test immediately.

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Prof Peter Openshaw, a member of a Sage group – the Covid-19 clinical information network – told BBC2's Newsnight: "A lot of we scientists are very concerned about what's happening at the moment.

"I think we're all just hoping that the staged reduction in lockdown is going to be ok. It is being done reasonably cautiously but I think this is not good news.

"If we get rapid spread of the South African or other more resistant variants, it may well be that we are going to have to put the reductions of lockdown into reverse."

The cluster of 44 confirmed cases in south London appears to have been triggered by an individual who travelled from Africa in February, the BBC reported. 

The Government said all cases and their contacts are in self isolation. 

But the residents of Lambeth and Wandsworth, as well as those who work or travel through there, have been told to get a PCR test at a centre in the “largest surge testing operation to date”. 

NHS Test and Trace is providing additional testing in an area of Southwark where a case linked to the other cluster has been identified.

Overall there have been 533 confirmed cases of the South African variant in the UK and another 11 probable cases.

These are those found through laboratory investigating of positive swab results.

But because this is only done for 10 per cent of swabs, the true number of South African variant cases is likely to be higher.

Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and professor at the University of Oxford, said we will know in “two to three weeks” how much the London outbreak has spread.

He told BBC Radio 4 we "may need to pause reopening" if it has taken off.

‘Don’t go mad’

Lockdown was further eased in England on Monday, with non-essential retail and pub beer gardens permitted to open.

Prof Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), urged people "not to go wild", warning that it could lead to the variant first identified in South Africa becoming "more prevalent".

"From a vaccine point of view the South African variant is of concern", he told Good Morning Britain.

"We know from studies that none of the vaccines are as effective against the South African variant – though the vaccines still prevent against severe disease and death even with the South African variant.

"The problem is, they may not protect against infection which allows infection to transmit, and if we allow transmission through the community in large numbers with high infection rates then we could see other variants emerging."

He added: "We've all been desperate for our freedoms – and it has been great this week when we can get out to the pub gardens and enjoy the outside space – but we must not go wild.

"If we start going wild and completely ignore all the basic rules then we will see more transmission and things like the South African variant will become more prevalent."

The next "waymarks" on England's plan to ease restrictions are due on May 17 and June 21.

But a pause on the lifting of restrictions wouldn't be the first time, after Christmas celebrations were cancelled as a result of a new variant in Kent.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there were no plans at present to change the road map out of lockdown.

“But it is very, very important that, if we are to get there in the way that we all want, people continue to be cautious and they continue to exercise restraint and just do the basic things to stop the spread of the virus – washing your hands, giving people plenty of space, doing things in fresh air,” he added.

The PM said lockdown restrictions had done “the bulk of the work” in reducing Covid infections, with the help of vaccines. 

Asked about this comment, Prof Harnden told BBC Breakfast: "I think he's right, both vaccination and lockdown have been really important

“And I think he's probably concerned, as I am, about the scenes in London that we saw of people actually enjoying the outside, pubs and then the crowded spaces – well, of course what that will do is push infection rates up.

"Every time that we 'unlockdown', we push infection rates up, and the danger of pushing infection rates up is we get much more transmission in the community.

"And new variant strains such as the South African strain – we really don't want that to become prevalent in this country because of course the vaccines don't work quite as well (against it)."

He added that “we can enjoy ourselves, but we just need to maintain that social distancing at the moment”.

Ruth Hutt, director of public health for Lambeth Council, said local people can still enjoy the easing of lockdown despite the discovery of the South African variant there.

Calls for tighter quarantine

Downing Street insisted the outbreak was being taken “very seriously” and “strong measures” had been put in place to prevent the spread of the variant.

But ministers are under pressure to tighten quarantine laws to stop new imports of new variants.

Labour said the development was “deeply concerning” because of concerns that vaccines could be less effective against variants.

The PM’s official spokesman told reporters: “I think this is something that we are taking very seriously and the effective surge testing processes that we have in place have been working well here.

“We know that variants do pose a risk, it’s one of our four tests for the progression of the road map. But… we have strong measures in place to find and isolate any new cases.”

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