The ‘Delta’ coronavirus variant (B.1.617.2) that was first identified in India is now a dominant in the United Kingdom, Public Health England (PHE) said on Thursday, adding that early evidence suggests it could cause an increased risk of hospitalization in comparison to the strain that was first detected in England.
While PHE cautioned that more data is needed, its early findings showed that the B.1.617.2 variant was more likely to cause serious illness than the B.1.1.7 or “Alpha” variant, which had been dominant in the UK since it was first detected in southeast England last fall.
An analysis of 38,805 sequenced cases in England showed that the Delta variant carried 2.61 times the risk of hospitalization within 14 days compared with the Alpha variant, when variables such as age, sex, ethnicity and vaccination status were taken into consideration.
This week, at least 278 people with the Delta variant attended hospital emergency departments across the UK, resulting in 94 people being admitted to hospital overnight — an increase from the 201 people with the Delta variant who attended emergency departments last week, including 43 overnight admissions, PHE outlined.
“The majority of these had not been vaccinated,” PHE highlighted.
The news raises serious questions about the plan to lift all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England on June 21. The decision to move ahead with that timeframe has not yet been finalized, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, adding that the government continues to monitor the data.
“We haven’t actually made the decision yet. We have said that the remaining restrictions will not be lifted before 21 June and we’ll set out over the next couple of weeks whether the data will justify that,” Hancock said.
“We take the approach in the UK that we set out when things will remain in place until, and then we follow the data as to whether it’s safe to lift those restrictions,” he added.
But ministers are also now moving to tighten the UK’s borders.
On Thursday, the government removed Portugal from its “green list” of countries and added seven more countries to the “red list” in an attempt to safeguard its reopening plan. The move has sent shock waves through Europe’s travel industry, just as it was beginning to find its feet following months of lockdown restrictions.
Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira, was added to the UK’s “amber” list, requiring travellers to quarantine for 10 days and take two Covid-19 tests upon return to the UK.
Coronavirus cases in England are continuing to climb, with the number of people testing positive hitting the highest level in six weeks on Thursday. A total of 17,162 people tested positive for the coronavirus in England in the week up to May 26, a 22% increase compared to last week, according to the UK’s National Health Service Test and Trace program.