Government slammed for 'seriously worrying' Indian variant report released days late

The government has been criticised over its handling of a "seriously worrying" report on the Indian coronavirus variant.

The Public Health England (PHE) report, which was released three days late on Saturday night, showed that the B1.617.2 variant has spread quickly to all regions across the country.

It also revealed the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are 81% effective against the variant after two doses, but are only 33% effective three weeks after the first dose.

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Matt Hancock said that the results were "groundbreaking" and he is "increasingly confident" that England is on track to lift lockdown remaining measures on 21 June.

The health secretary said on Sunday morning: "I'm increasingly confident we're on track for the roadmap because this data shows the vaccine after two doses works just as effectively, and we all know that the vaccine is our way out of this."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in central London for his appearance on the BBC1 current affairs programme, The Andrew Marr Show. Picture date: Sunday May 16, 2021.
Health secretary Matt Hancock arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in central London. (PA)

Boris Johnson has continued to assure the public that the Indian variant is not taking England off-track to lift most remaining lockdown measures on 21 June.

However, experts have slammed the government’s handling of the PHE report, saying its conclusions are "alarming".

They have also criticised how it was released days late, and on a Saturday night when the Eurovision song contest was live on television.

Dr Zubana Hague, a member of Independent Sage, wrote on Twitter: "This is alarming. Last night, while Eurovision was on Public Health England released a delayed report showing that B16172 so-called Indian variant has spread v. fast across the country, now in all regions and is deemed high risk re: transmissibility and some vaccine escape."

She cited data from the report’s findings that the variant has spread to all areas of England and a large percentage of cases have now been identified in the North West, London, the East of England and the East Midlands.

On the fact that the vaccines are just 33% effective after one dose, she said: "That leaves 60% of adults and all children still at risk."

Hague added: "On Friday, Boris Johnson said he sees no current signs of having to 'deviate' from plans to scrap the last lockdown curbs yet both he and PHE were fully aware of all this alarming data."

Besides the timing of the report, the government has also been criticised for excluding data on how the new Covid variant is spreading in schools.

It comes as countries announced findings that the variant could be affecting children more.

On Saturday, it emerged that Downing Street had allegedly leaned on PHE not to publish data on schools.

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A page on the Indian variant spreading in schools was reportedly excluded in a previous report on the variant published on 13 May, according to The Observer.

The newspaper said it had seen evidence suggesting the government was directly involved in PHE’s decision not to publish the page on schools data, which Number 10 has denied.

Days later, the government went ahead with its decision to remove mandatory face coverings in English schools.

Data on the spread of the new variant in schools has still not been published, even in the latest report published on Saturday.

This is despite calls from union officials and scientists who fear families and teachers are being put at risk.

People queuing for Covid vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton as the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant could lead to the return of local lockdowns, ministers have acknowledged. Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford are the areas ministers are most concerned about. Picture date: Tuesday May 18, 2021.
People queuing for COVID vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton. (PA)

Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary’s University London, tweeted that the PHE report looked "seriously worrying" and criticised the fact it contained no data on schools.

She said: "Overall a concerning picture – SAGE has clearly warned that a variant that is highly transmissible and has a level of escape could possibly lead to levels of hospitalisations that exceed the January peak, even with vaccine roll-out continuing, if we continue re-opening as we are.

"It's unclear why this very concerning report has been released on Saturday night – that too without school data that PHE has said will be released.

"It's bizarre we're continuing re-opening and removing school mitigations as we see exponential growth in many parts of England."

She also questioned why data on schools hadn't been released, adding: "What is the point of having surveillance and scientific advice, if we ignore it?"

Journalist Carole Cadwalladr similarly criticised the report, accusing PHE of dumping "very shocking data" on a Saturday night.

She tweeted: "Unbelievable. Public Health England has just dumped the very shocking data on spread of Indian variant three days late on a Saturday night in the middle of Eurovision.

"And they still haven’t released schools data I reported on here."

Yahoo News has contacted PHE, the Department of Health and Matt Hancock for comment.