Boris Johnson has launched a new drive to identify simple treatments for coronavirus, amid warnings that a third wave of cases could hit the UK.
The Prime Minister insisted the “path to freedom” remained open, with nothing in the figures to suggest a deviation from the road map out of lockdown.
For the first time since September the latest figures showed fewer than 2,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital.
But as he launched a new taskforce to identify antiviral treatments, Mr Johnson acknowledged soaring cases overseas and warnings from scientists that there will be another wave this year.
At a Downing Street press conference he said: “As we look at what is happening in other countries, with cases now at record numbers around the world, we cannot delude ourselves that Covid has gone away.
“I see nothing in the data now that makes me think we are going to have to deviate in any way from the road map – cautious but irreversible – that we have set out.
“But the majority of scientific opinion in this country is still firmly of the view that there will be another wave of Covid at some stage this year.
“And so we must, as far as possible, learn to live with this disease as we live with other diseases.”
Mr Johnson suggested that antivirals could be a third method of defence, along with vaccinations – including booster shots – and mass testing.
The antiviral taskforce will seek out new medicines to “stop the virus in its tracks”, hopefully producing simple treatments that can be taken at home.
It is hoped that antivirals could help to reduce infections and limit the impact of any new variants.
They may also help to protect people who cannot take vaccines or those who are not fully protected after having the jab.
Officials hope to find and bring two treatments online this year.
In an effort to avoid the kind of international disputes that have marked the deployment of vaccines, the taskforce will also look at opportunities to make antiviral drugs in the UK.
Mr Johnson said he hoped the move would help give “ever greater confidence to the people of this country that we continue on our path towards freedom”.
The latest figures showed:
– Up to April 19 33,032,120 people had received a first dose of vaccine – a rise of 99,672 on the previous day – including 10,425,790 who have had both doses doses, an increase of 273,751.
– A further 33 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday, bringing the UK total by that measure to 127,307.
– As of 9am on Tuesday, there had been a further 2,524 lab-confirmed cases in the UK, bringing the total to 4,393,307.
– As of 8am on Sunday there were 1,973 Covid-19 patients in hospital.
Mr Johnson was questioned about the timing of a decision to put India on the travel red list.
The Prime Minister, who cancelled a planned trip to India due to the situation there, said the red listing was a “purely precautionary” step while investigations were carried out into the virus variant discovered there.
“What we’re seeing in India is a result of a variant under investigation, it hasn’t yet been deemed a variant of concern – I think that was why there has been the delay,” the Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference.
“I think what the JBC (Joint Biosecurity Centre) has decided is on a purely precautionary basis, it’s necessary now to put India on the red list.”
The variant – also known as B.1.617 – was first noted internationally in October and first identified in the UK on February 22.
It has 13 mutations including two in the virus’ spike protein known as E494Q and L452R.
However, Public Health England (PHE) experts are currently unsure whether any of the mutations mean the variant can be transmitted more easily, is more deadly or can evade the effectiveness of vaccines or natural immunity.
Sharon Peacock, the head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) and professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it was currently unclear whether the variant first identified in India was behind its current wave, but there was enough concern to warrant slowing the number of cases coming into the UK.
She said the decision to put it on the red list was “an important step in controlling further introduction of this variant into the UK”.
The quarantine requirements for people returning to the UK from India come into force at 4am on Friday.
Anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen will be banned from entering the country if they have been in India in the previous 10 days.
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