Sir John Bell says UK should not panic about rising Covid cases

‘We can’t keep scampering down rabbit holes when there’s a new variant’: Top No10 scientist urges Boris Johnson to push ahead with June 21 ‘Freedom Day’ despite SAGE advisers lobbying for delay

  • Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford, urged ministers to focus on hospitals and deaths, not cases 
  • He said UK will ‘spend a long time huddled away’ if it runs away at the sign of every new Covid variant 
  • Intervention comes as Boris Johnson is under pressure from SAGE advisers to delay June 21 unlocking
  • Infection numbers are rising in Britain but hospital admissions are trailing slowly and deaths yesterday hit 0 

Britain cannot keep ‘scampering down a rabbit hole’ every time it uncovers a new Covid variant, one of the Government’s top scientific advisers said today.

Hitting back at members of SAGE calling for a longer lockdown, Sir John Bell said ministers must instead focus on hospitalisations and deaths, which have remained flat nationally. 

The Oxford University medical expert, who has advised the Government on Covid tests and vaccines, suggested the country must take a leap of faith and put trust in its world-beating vaccination rollout.

Sir John becomes the highest profile adviser to call for ministers to stick with the roadmap and bring an end to social distancing laws on June 21’s ‘Freedom Day’.

His comments come as pressure mounts on Boris Johnson to push the date back to buy time to roll out jabs to millions more people to defend against the Indian variant.

New Covid cases have now been above 3,000 for seven consecutive days in the UK but the country yesterday reported zero new deaths for the first time since July 2020, bolstering calls for No10 to push ahead with plans to get back to normal.

But Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon has already delayed the unlocking north of the border, saying she was worried about how fast the virus is spreading, and lockdowns will continue for many regions there.

Sir told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think we do need to keep our eye on hospitalisations, serious disease and deaths, which is really what we are trying to manage.

‘If we scamper down a rabbit hole every time we see a new variant we are going to spend a long time huddled away — so I think we need to get a bit of balance into the discussion and keep our eyes on the serious disease we are trying to prevent.’ 


Professor Sir John Bell urged ministers to focus on hospitalisations and deaths instead of being panicked by the past week’s rise in Covid cases, which was always expected to happen when lockdown rules were lifted. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to speak today on feelings ahead of June 21’s planned final roadmap step

Britain recorded zero Covid deaths yesterday. Experts said this was a good sign and proof that vaccines were working. But they added it was also likely down to the bank holiday, when fewer deaths are likely to have been registered because more people were off work

Nationally hospital admissions for the virus remain flat but there has been a slight uptick in the North West and London in the last week

People have become less convinced that all social distancing will end on June 21 as planned – 58 per cent of Brits thought it would when they were asked on May 23, compared to 73 per cent on May 2

Indian variant cases in England’s 12 hotspots are shown (red) compared to the Kent variant (orange). The new strain has gone on to become dominant in all 12 of the above areas – and more than 100 in total – since cropping up for the first time in April. It is believed to be a fifth more infectious than the Kent variant which is propelling its spread

The Oxford expert also urged ministers to back rolling out the vaccine in other nations, to get outbreaks under control and reduce the risk of vaccine-busting variants emerging. 

Sir John’s intervention comes as Boris Johnson faces mounting pressure to delay England’s June 21 Freedom Day, with some scientists warning rising cases could spark ‘Covid volcanoes’ in hospitals.

Britain recorded zero deaths from the virus yesterday, which experts say is a ‘good sign’ and that the vaccines are working. But cases rose 27 per cent after another 3,165 were recorded.

The latest data on hospitalisations shows the number on wards has risen slightly. But scientists say this was to be expected as the jabs are not 100 per cent effective. 

The Prime Minister is expected to make a statement from Downing Street this morning to iron out the Government’s views on June 21 unlocking.

Ministers are preparing to offer vaccines to all over-18s within weeks to help halt the spread of the Indian variant as the UK reported zero Covid deaths for the first time in 10 months.

So far only adults aged 30 and over have been invited for their jabs and health leaders are focusing their efforts on giving older people their second dose.

But it is understood officials are planning to open up the eligibility to all age groups amid concerns the Indian strain – which has been renamed as the ‘Delta variant’ – is spreading very quickly among the young.

In a speech today Health Secretary Matt Hancock will praise the country’s ‘extraordinary vaccine heroes’ — including healthcare staff and volunteers.

It comes as SAGE experts and Tory MPs butt heads over whether June 21’s ‘Freedom Day’ should be delayed in the face of the Indian variant as health officials in the regions worst affected say it is mostly being transmitted by 17 to 18-year-olds, and potentially passed on to older, more vulnerable family members.

Government figures yesterday showed nearly three-quarters of adults have had one dose – with almost half receiving their second dose.

Mr Johnson is not expected to commit to the reopening or to delaying it, but to drop hints about the Government’s view. Whitehall sources say no decision will be taken until June 14 at the earliest. 

Sir John took to the airwaves to warn that Britain cannot run scared from Covid variants if it is to get out of lockdown.

Asked about the zero Covid deaths recorded yesterday, he said this ‘looks pretty good’.

‘Now there’s always of course a lag in terms of deaths because people get Covid and they don’t die immediately so we have to be a bit careful about that,’ he warned.

‘But as far as I can see the numbers don’t look too intimidating to me and I think we need to let them play out another couple of weeks.’

He added: ‘I think the Government’s taken the wise approach to this before we make a decision on the next reduction of the lockdown but I am pretty encouraged by what I see.’

The intervention comes as Sir John and 11 other scientists publish a letter ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall this month calling on ministers to support the vaccine roll out in other countries.

The open letter warns without this action Britain risks importing dangerous variants from abroad as the virus remains out of control in other areas. 

‘Leaders from the G7 countries must take decisive action now if we are to bring this pandemic under control,’ the scientists which also include Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar and the director of the Oxford vaccine group Professor Sue Clemens write. 

‘Without a globally coordinated approach… we are merely putting out fires in one part of the world as another suffers.

King’s College London’s Professor Tim Spector said yesterday the fact that outbreaks appear to be confined to local clusters in hotspots in the Covid Symptom Study, and that the Indian variant is not yet spreading rife across the country, was proof that vaccines are working

‘The result is a pandemic that continues on – with millions more lives lost and a real threat that any progress made to date is completely undone by a new variant that renders vaccines ineffective.’ 

Public Health England is already monitoring 13 variants in the UK, and has designated five ‘of concern’ —  meaning scientists fear they are spreading rapidly or could make vaccines less effective.

Surge testing has been sparked in hotspots including Bolton, Bedford and Blackburn with Darwen to root out cases of the Indian variant.

And the tool was also deployed in areas including Bristol and parts of London and Gloucestershire when the South African variant was identified — which studies suggest could make vaccines slightly less effective.

The Indian variant — B.1.617.2 — has sparked concern in official circles amid rising case numbers and after scientists said it is at least 20 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant.

But studies suggest it is still susceptible to vaccine-sparked immunity, while data shows cases are mostly focused in younger age groups who are yet to be offered at least one dose of the Covid vaccine.

More than 39.4million Britons have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, nearly three quarters, and 25.7million have got both doses, or nearly 50 per cent. 

To boost these numbers even more, ministers are preparing to offer vaccines to all over-18s within weeks.

So far only adults aged 30 and over have been invited for their jabs and health leaders are focusing their efforts on giving older people their second dose.

But it is understood officials are planning to open up the eligibility to all age groups amid concerns the Indian strain – which has been renamed as the ‘Delta variant’ – is spreading very quickly among the young. 

Meanwhile in a speech today Health Secretary Matt Hancock will praise the country’s ‘extraordinary vaccine heroes’ – including healthcare staff and volunteers.  

SAGE experts and Tory MPs have been butting heads over whether June 21 should be delayed in the face of the Indian variant as health officials in the regions worst affected say it is mostly being transmitted by 17 to 18-year-olds, and potentially passed on to older, more vulnerable family members – bolstering the case for younger people to be vaccinated.

At a speech outside the Jenner Institute in Oxford, where the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was developed, Mr Hancock will pay particular tribute to the NHS, scientists and the armed forces for helping deliver 65million vaccines so far.

‘The biggest risk would have been the failure to find a vaccine at all. So we explicitly embraced risk early on,’ he will say. ‘So we backed lots of horses and invested at risk. 

‘And instead of sitting back and waiting to see which vaccines came off, we were tenacious in helping them to get over the line, drawing on the abundant industry experience in our team. The team who worked on our vaccination programme was the single greatest asset that we had in this crisis.’ 

He will also credit the ‘phenomenal dedication’ of the British public to come forward with more than 90 per cent of over-50s having had at least one dose.

Yesterday the director of public health in Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire – which has the highest Covid infection rates on the country – urged the Government to start vaccinating teenagers.

Dominic Harrison warned of an ‘exceptionally high rate’ among 17 and 18-year-olds and urged ministers to license the jabs for teenagers to help protect the wider community.

‘We desperately need the UK Government, the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] to pass the Pfizer vaccine as safe and effective for that age group,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.

‘Now the USA, Canada, Singapore and the European Union have all in the last week said that’s Pfizer BioNTechvaccine is safe and effective for 12 years and above and I just hope the UK Government can get on with passing that, assuming that they agree that we could then get into rapid vaccination for that cohort, before the end of term.

‘Because that would help not just with protecting the whole population through an increased number of people vaccinated, but reducing transmission in that group.’ 

Covid Symptom Study data shows that in May, all the under-40 age groups saw infection rates rise to around 140 positive cases per 100,000 people. Meanwhile the figure for people in their 50s was around 30 in 100,000 and it was lower than 20 for over-60s, who are by far the most vaccinated age group. Professor Spector said: ‘Vaccines work’

Covid hospital admissions are slowly creeping up across England but nearly half of all trusts are still completely empty, official figures have revealed. Graph shows: Just one NHS trust in England had more than four per cent of its beds occupied by sufferers of the virus in the most recent week data is available for (week ending May 23) [Percentage on the right shows the change in patient numbers in a week]

Covid woes have been forgotten this week as the summer weather began in earnest and people enjoyed time outside after an unseasonably cold and wet spring. Pictured: A crowd at Warleigh Weir in Bath

People are pictured enjoying the sunshine in Margate, Kent, today on what could be the warmest day of the year so far with temperatures stretching towards 77F (25C) across the country

The decline of death numbers, combined with low hospital admissions, offer confidence that vaccines are protecting people from the coronavirus and hopefully working well enough to prevent a massive third wave. 

Professor Tim Spector, a King’s College London epidemiologist who runs the Covid Symptom Study, suggested that the jabs are protecting even against infections caused by the Indian variant, which scientists weren’t sure whether it would.

He said in a tweet: ‘The UK hotspots clearly tell the story. The Delta variant has taken a hold of these areas but numbers are around 4,000 per day and is not taking hold more widely.

‘Virtually all cases are aged under 50 or unvaccinated – so vaccines work.’

A report produced by his Covid Symptom Study found there were an average of 4,608 new cases of Covid per day over the past two weeks and that around 58,665 people had it at any time.

The report showed that most places on England’s outbreak watchlist had seen infection rates about stable or improving in the past week, including Leicester, Peterborough, Hillingdon, Gateshead, Bolton, Bury, Lancashire, Manchester, Tameside, Birmingham, Kirklees and Leeds.  

And it revealed that the majority of cases throughout May have been in the as-yet-unvaccinated under-40s, with the rate of infection highest among 20 to 29-year-olds, followed by 30 to 39-year-olds and then under-20s.

While they all saw around 140 cases per 100,000 people in the most recent data, the figure for people in their 50s was around 30 in 100,000 and it was lower than 20 for over-60s, who are by far the most vaccinated age group.

Tory MPs grabbed hold of the positive data to shoot down calls from SAGE advisers for the end of social distancing to be delayed. 

Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘My worry is there seems to be a concerted push among scientists to stop June 21 taking place. They seem to have now moved the goalposts so we can’t open up until everybody has had two jabs. That was never part of the event.’ 

‘By and large everybody who is 50-plus has had two jabs now. It seems to me that everybody is trying to get in ‘I told you so’ before the event. If it all goes well no-one will remember the scientists who said don’t do it.

‘If it goes wrong they will be up crowing ‘we told you’. It is a win-win for them.’

He added: ‘There is a kind of panic taking place. Project Fear is coming to an end and it is as if the scientists now cannot bring themselves to understand exactly how life will be.

‘What’s happened now will almost certainly lead to us going back to lockdown again at some point and destroying our livelihoods, our health, for non-Covid reasons.’ 

MAY 22: This map shows the local authorities where the Indian variant was the dominant strain — made up the majority of cases — by the number of infections with the mutant strain detected in their areas. It is for the two weeks to May 22. Areas coloured red had more than 50 cases, orange between 10 and 49 cases, and yellow had fewer than 10 cases

HOVER OVER YOUR AREA TO SEE HOW COMMON THE INDIAN VARIANT WAS BY MAY 22

Source: Read Full Article