The number of cases of South African and Brazilian COVID variants in the UK appears to be falling, the health secretary has told Sky News.
Matt Hancock said there was evidence that enhanced contact-tracing and stricter border measures were helping to control the number of people being infected by those new variants first discovered abroad.
“We’ve now got a much stronger vigilance in place, because everybody coming into the country has to be tested and we sequence the results of those tests,” he told the Sophy Ridge On Sunday show.
“And we’ve also got a very strong set of actions working with the local authorities very specifically in the areas where a new variant is found.
“We hit it hard and send in enhanced contact-tracing and go door-to-door.
“We’ve now got this programme in place to be able to really, really try to stamp out a new variant where we see it.
“There is evidence that is working.”
But Mr Hancock, who set out the government’s aim to offer all adults in the UK a vaccine by the end of July, added the UK needed to be “vigilant” against the spread of new COVID variants.
“If one of these new variants doesn’t respond to the vaccine as well as the others – as well as the standard variant in the UK, which is the Kent variant – then, if that’s the case, then that’s obviously a very serious risk for the vaccination programme,” he said.
“We’re doing a lot of work to find out the impact of the vaccine on these new variants – especially the ones discovered in Brazil and South Africa – because, clearly, the answer to that question is critical to understanding how much of a risk the new variants pose.
“But the good news is the actions we’re taking right now do appear to be working.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will set out his roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions, including the reopening of schools for all pupils.
Mr Hancock said the government would take a “cautious but irreversible approach” to easing COVID measures.
He added that ministers also wanted “to give that indicative sense and a direction so that people can start to begin to plan their lives in a way that they have all put on hold for, well, for the last year and certainly the last month or so when we have been in this second national lockdown”.
The health secretary later revealed the government was “not yet” confident that the COVID vaccines currently in use in the UK were effective against all variants.
“We are confident the vaccine works effectively against both the old strain that’s been here for some time and the so-called Kent variant, which is now the main source of infection in this country,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“We do not yet have the confidence the vaccine is as effective against the South Africa variant and the variant first seen in Brazil.”
The health secretary said there had been a total of 300 cases of the South African variant in the UK, but that those of these were “historic cases from over a month ago”.
“The latest data shows that there is around a dozen new ones – so a much, much smaller number,” he added.
“And each time we found a new one, we absolutely clamp down on it.”
Mr Hancock said, as the vaccine rollout continues across the UK, there are signs the number of people in hospital with COVID is “falling much more sharply” than it did during the first wave of infections last year.
One in three of all adults in the UK had now received a COVID vaccine, the health secretary added.
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