Covid variants could see Wales’ pandemic progress ‘going backwards’

Wales’ journey out of lockdown risks being reversed by new strains of coronavirus like the Indian variant, the country’s chief medical officer has said.

Dr Frank Atherton’s warning came as 57 cases of the variant were identified mainly in South Wales, which he said was an underestimate and is expected to rise in the coming days.

On Monday, restrictions on care home visiting were eased to allow any two people at a time to visit a resident indoors, with only a designated pair previously being allowed to do so.

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But Dr Atherton told the Welsh Government’s press briefing in Cardiff that a new spike of cases caused by a “rapid relaxation” of rules, or a spread of the imported strain of Covid-19, could halt Wales’ progress in supressing the virus.

Variants can be more transmissible, he said, adding that there was also the risk vaccines “may be less effective” on it, though the Indian strain is not believed to be more harmful than others.

Dr Atherton said: “The public should be worried about the resurgence of coronavirus in general, really. We have a small number of cases, 57, at the moment, that we have identified of the Indian variant.

“That will be an underestimate. There will be other cases. And I do expect those numbers to rise, but they’re still small in the scheme of things.

“The things that have brought the numbers right down here in Wales, those things that we’ve become accustomed to about social distancing, about handwashing, about face coverings in public places, those are the things which will keep us safe.

“And anything which puts that in reverse, too rapid relaxation, the introduction of new variants from overseas, all of things raise the risk that we could end up going backwards.”

Of the 57 cases of the variant in Wales, the biggest number were located in clusters around Cardiff, with others also located in Swansea and a “small number” in North Wales, Dr Atherton said.

But unlike in England and Scotland there is no evidence of widespread transmissions of the variant from person-to-person in Wales, with all identified cases able to be traced back to a point of entry into the country.

Dr Atherton said the current number of Covid cases in Wales remained “very low” at around 800,000, the lowest among the UK nations.

“That’s really good news, but of course as we’ve seen repeatedly throughout the pandemic there are lots of uncertainties and things can go awry very quickly if we take our eyes off the ball,” he added.

Wales’ new health minister Eluned Morgan said 80% of adults in Wales had now received their first dose of the Covid vaccine, including 50% of people aged between 18 and 29.

A third of adults had also received both doses, with the ongoing vaccination programme offering the “best way to really deal with this new variant”, she said.

Asked whether Wales would consider imposing restrictions on travel to and from Covid hotspots in England like Bolton where cases were rising, Baroness Morgan said the Welsh Government “haven’t made any decisions to restrict travel” but would “be constantly keeping the situation under review”.