The UK is now “in the grips” of the early stages of a third wave of coronavirus, a former Chief Scientific Adviser to the government has warned.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, who served in the position now held by Sir Patrick Vallance from 2013 to 2017, said the highly transmissible Indian ‘Delta’ variant has seen cases doubling in just a week.
The exponential growth in infection rates means that Britain would be in “real trouble” were it not for the vaccine programme – and hospital numbers are now rising, the scientist said.
“Sadly we are in the grip of the early stages of a third wave of the virus and it is this Delta variant, the so-called Indian variant, which has a very significant transmission advantage over the previous Alpha variant, the so-called Kent variant – it’s about 60 per cent more transmissible,” Prof Walport told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We’ve got 7,000 cases on average per day at the moment, and a doubling time which is somewhere around a week.
“More than 90 per cent of the new infections in the UK are of this variant, and it is rising in most parts of the country, though not all.
“The good news is we would be in real trouble if not for the enormous success of the vaccination programme and so we have got 75 per cent of all adults have had the first dose and 50 per cent who’ve had a second dose.”
Vaccines may be less effective at protecting against the strain than previous variants, Prof Walport said.
He added: “This variant shows some partial escape, particularly from the first dose – so first dose of vaccine is about 30 per cent effective compared to 50 per cent with the previous variant.
“We are starting to see hospital numbers rise, though fortunately with nothing like the intensity we saw previously.”
It comes as Boris Johnson is expected to confirm later today a delay of up to a month in the highly anticipated lifting of lockdown on June 21.
Surging case rates fuelled by the Indian strain are likely to derail the plan despite the success of the jab rollout.
Latest figures show 7,738 cases in the last 24 hours – up 52.5 per cent in a week. Another 187 patients were admitted to hospital – an increase of 15.2 per cent on the rolling seven-day average.
This comes as Professor Devi Sridhar, from the University of Edinburgh, said a third wave of cases largely in younger age groups was already happening “but the worry is that this will slowly move, like it has in previous waves, into older groups”, some of whom are not yet fully protected.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the goal was to “make this a manageable health issue” and use vaccines and testing to “keep the burden off health services”.
She added: “We’re really trying to break that chain between cases and hospitalisations and severe disease and maintain NHS capacity when burnout is already an issue within the NHS.”
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the programme: “We’re still very worried about the small numbers percentage wise, but probably large numbers of people, that are still unvaccinated in the higher risk groups.”
He added that the JCVI was “looking carefully at what the Scottish Government has done” with regards to urging over-40s to have their second dose at eight weeks, adding that “it seems to be a sensible strategy, and we will advise the Government accordingly”.