England’s coronavirus R rate is higher than at any time since October at a minimum of 1.2 and a possible high of 1.4, SAGE estimated today as cases of the Indian ‘Delta’ variant more than tripled in a week to 42,000 and now account for nine out of 10 infections across the country.

As fears keep growing over the mutant strain, vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi has hinted at a delay to the end of the lockdown roadmap and said the UK must not ‘squander those hard-fought gains that we have made through the vaccination programme’.

It now looks almost certain that Boris Johnson will delay the ‘Freedom Day’ end of restrictions slated for June 21 for a month, scuppering plans to lift crowd limits at large events, weddings and bars. The PM is keeping his cards close to his chest and his spokesperson said today that he will ‘look closely at the data over the weekend before an announcement on Monday.

SAGE today estimated that the R rate of the virus is somewhere between 1.2 and 1.4 up from 1.0 to 1.2 last week, meaning case numbers may explode in the coming days and weeks, but it’s hoped vaccines will prevent hospital admissions and deaths from following the same pattern meaning lockdown won’t be necessary.

MPs said ‘alarm bells should be ringing in Downing Street after the spike of more than 29,000 Delta cases in just a week and the warning they are doubling in as little as five days in some areas. But Public Health England has published promising data showing that vaccines are working well against the Indian strain.

Its figures show that only one in 10 people admitted to hospital after getting infected with the variant had been given two doses of a vaccine  – just 42 out of 383 – while the rest of them had either had one jab or none at all.  Twelve out of 42 people to have died of the strain had been vaccinated and just 1,785 out of 33,206 infections were in double-jabbed people.

Vaccines are now likely the only thing that can keep Britain out of another lockdown but there are concerns that not enough people are fully protected and that supplies will be spread thin over the coming weeks after appointments opened up to under-30s this week for the first time and a million booked jabs on Tuesday alone.

Mr Zahawi said supplies of Pfizer – which is used for everyone under 40 and also for around half of older people’s second doses – will be ‘tight but stable’ in June as the rollout steams ahead. One minister in Scotland admitted that restricting the use of AstraZeneca’s jab for young adults is slowing down the vaccine programme.

PHE’s report cautioned that a single dose of the vaccine only appears to offer 33 per cent protection against illness from this variant, down from 50 per cent with the Kent strain, but two doses remain highly effective at an estimated 81 per cent down from 88 per cent.

The Office for National Statistics’ weekly infection survey suggests England’s outbreak only actually grew by 13 per cent last week to 96,800 total cases – compared to a near-doubling 75 per cent surge the week before – but Mr Zahawi said No10 would have to be ‘really careful’ to try and avoid the virus bouncing back.

England’s coronavirus R rate is higher than at any time since October at a minimum of 1.2 and a possible high of 1.4, SAGE estimated today

Public Health England data show how it took just a matter of weeks for the Indian ‘Delta’ variant to smash past the Kent strain and take over as dominant in England, with it surging to make up 96 per cent of cases in just nine weeks

The Office for National Statistics’ weekly infection survey suggested England’s outbreak grew by only 13 per cent last week to 96,800 total cases – compared to a near-doubling 75 per cent surge the week before

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the UK must be ‘really careful’ so as not to ‘squander’ gains made with vaccines. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to delay the end of the lockdown planned for June 21

Public Health England graphs show how the Indian ‘Delta’ variant (pink) rapidly overtook all other strains of the virus to become dominant in April and May

The North West (dark blue) has been by far the hardest-hit region by the new variant while London (yellow) has experienced the second-highest number of cases

Most Delta cases have been in young adults and teenagers, who are unvaccinated, while there have been significantly fewer positive tests in older people, particularly over-50s, most of whom have had two doses of a jab. The true test of the vaccine will be whether the age distribution stays this way as the outbreak gets larger

This heat map shows the hotspots for positive test samples that scientists believe are the Delta variant, with the most cases concentrated in the North West around Manchester and Liverpool

The vast majority of cases and hospital admissions triggered by the Delta variant have been in people who were unvaccinated, PHE’s data show. The figures show that only one in 10 people admitted to hospital after getting infected with the variant had been given two doses of a vaccine – just 42 out of 383 – while the rest of them had either had one jab or none at all. Twelve out of 42 people to have died of the strain had been vaccinated and just 1,785 out of 33,206 infections were in double-jabbed people

Mr Zahawi said on Times Radio: ‘There have been some really hard-won battles against this virus and we don’t want to squander those hard-fought gains that we have made through the vaccination programme. The virus hasn’t gone away, the virus will continue to mutate, to escape, to try and survive, and I think it’s really important that we are really careful.’

Government critics were taken aback by ‘terrible’ data showing how the Delta variant is taking over so quickly and threatening a third wave of hospital admissions.

The PHE figures show that the number of positive tests linked back to the strain more than tripled from 12,431 to 42,323 in just a week.

Part of this increase was down to an improved testing system that speeds up the process of working out which variant someone is infected with, PHE said, but cases are rising in the real world, too.

The variant was only discovered in April but already accounts for 96 per cent of all positives, which is likely down to the fact that it is an estimated 64 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain was. Experts say it appears better equipped to latch onto cells in people’s airways meaning less exposure is needed to trigger an infection.

LIMITING ASTRAZENECA ‘IS SLOWING DOWN’ JABS ROLLOUT

Insisting on giving people younger than 40 the Pfizer vaccine and not the AstraZeneca one is slowing down the UK’s vaccine rollout, a Scottish MP has suggested.

Ahead of a call between the British nations on Thursday, Humza Yousaf said Scotland needs more Pfizer doses if it is to ‘maintain or increase’ its current speed of rollout.

He said he was ‘conscious’ that official advice that the AstraZeneca vaccine should not be used for those under 40 had placed ‘increased pressure’ on supplies.

The JCVI, the UK’s vaccines watchdog, decided that younger adults should be offered the Pfizer jab wherever possible because of the small risk of blood clotting after the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Although both are proven to be safe for the vast majority of people ministers decided to err on the side of caution while the Covid risk was low and it was safe to wait a bit longer to get Pfizer. If the outbreak gets significantly worse or a more dangerous variant appears, the balance of risk might change and the AstraZeneca jab brought back for young people.

Nadhim Zahawi and Pfizer tried to play down concerns about the supply chain.

The vaccines minister said: ‘I am absolutely confident, and I’ll speak to Humza on this, that we will be able to deliver the Pfizer vaccines that Scotland needs to be able to meet its targets for end of July, as the United Kingdom target.’

He added: ‘Supply remains finite, but it is stable, and Pfizer has done a great job in being consistent on their delivery schedule.’

Pfizer said in a statement: ‘In the UK, quarter one deliveries (January-March) was completed in line with our contractual agreement and we remain on course to continue to deliver a steady supply of vaccines to the UK, in accordance with the monthly schedule.’

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said: ‘These figures are terrible. The pace at which cases of the Delta variant continue to rise is deeply worrying and is putting the lifting of restrictions at risk.

‘The blame for this lies with the Prime Minister and his reckless refusal to act on Labour’s repeated warnings to secure our borders against Covid and its variants.’

And Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus added: ‘These figures should set alarm bells ringing in government as we approach the 21st June.

‘It is particularly concerning that the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant is above the worst-case scenario modelled by SAGE, with cases estimated to be doubling every 4.5 days in some regions.

‘The government must immediately explain to the public whether this exponential growth suggests the country is in line for a severe third wave and if so what it is doing to prevent this.’

On plans for June 21, Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said the PM would make his final decision over the weekend: ‘I am not going to get into speculation. The Prime Minister addressed the question yesterday and the vaccines minister spoke about it as well this morning.

‘We are closely looking at the data and assessing against the four tests which we published in the roadmap, particularly on hospitalisations, and we will set out an update on Monday.’

Although figures for the Indian variant specifically are rocketing, numbers for the outbreak overall are increasing more slowly.

Today’s weekly ONS report found that an estimated 96,800 people were coronavirus-positive last week, compared to 85,600 the week before. This was a significantly smaller increase than the near-doubling from 48,500 at May’s end.

An estimated one in 560 people were carrying the virus by June 5, it said – around 0.18 per cent of the population. This compared to 0.08 per cent in Wales, 0.14 in Northern Ireland and an equal 0.18 in Scotland.

The infection rate is significantly higher in North West England, at 0.5 per cent than in other regions, with all others recording rates of 0.2 or 0.1 per cent.

This is backed up by the PHE data that showed 8,288 Indian variant cases in the North West by June 7, compared to 2,325 in London, the second-worst affected area. The NW cases were almost half of all those in England.

By age, secondary school pupils had the highest infection rate in the ONS survey, at 0.5 per cent. The rate was 0.4 per cent for 17 to 24-year-olds and became lower with age to 0.1 per cent among the vaccinated over-50s.

The true test of the vaccines will be whether infection rates remain low among older age groups in the coming weeks and, if they do, ministers will likely be satisfied that it is safe to reopen normal society.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief of the UK Health Security Agency, said: ‘Vaccination is our best defence. If you are eligible, we urge you to come forward and be vaccinated. Remember that two doses provide significantly more protection than a single dose.

‘However, while vaccination reduces the risk of severe disease, it does not eliminate it. With data showing that Delta is significantly more transmissible than Alpha, it is just as important as ever to follow public health advice, which has not changed. Get vaccinated, work from home where you can and remember “hands, face, space, fresh air” at all times. These measures work, and they save lives.’

Vaccines are now being offered to everyone over the age of 25 but Mr Zahawi said that supplies of the Pfizer jab, which is being used for everyone under the age of 40 as well as for second doses for around half of older people, were going to be ‘tight’ in the coming weeks as the rollout rattles ahead.

The infection rate is significantly higher in North West England, at 0.5 per cent than in other regions, with all others recording rates of 0.2 or 0.1 per cent

By age, secondary school pupils had the highest infection rate in the ONS survey, at 0.5 per cent. The rate was 0.4 per cent for 17 to 24-year-olds and became lower with age to 0.1 per cent among the vaccinated over-50s

People in their 20s were invited to book vaccine appointments for the first time this week and clamoured for the jabs with more than a million people getting booked in on Tuesday alone – a one-day record for the NHS.

The minister said on LBC: ‘Every time I’ve said the determining factor in terms of the vaccine in arms is supply. And supply remains finite, but it is stable, and Pfizer has done a great job in being consistent on their delivery schedule.’

It is believed that ministers are still considering keeping some curbs in place for a further two to four weeks to buy more time for the vaccine programme amid mounting concern about the spread of the Indian variant.

While an exception is likely to be made for weddings, ministers have become increasingly pessimistic over the course of the week and are now moving closer to delayed freedom…

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