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Sensemaker audio

The new variant

The new variant

Has the government made the right call on the ‘Indian’ variant, otherwise known as B1617?


Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today: did the government make the right call on the hardest policy decision it’s faced in the pandemic so far?

“The race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter… since I spoke to you last Monday, we’ve seen further clusters of the b1617.2, the variant first observed in India…”

Prime minister Boris Johnson speaking at a news briefing

Last Friday, prime minister Boris Johnson had a word of warning for us… 

“We believe this variant is more transmissible than the previous ones, in other words it passes more easily from person to person but we don’t know by how much.

Prime minister Boris Johnson speaking at a news briefing

Of course, we’ve been here before. A new variant that’s more transmissible than the last, which we don’t know much about. This time, it’s the so-called “Indian variant”, or, B1617… and it’s causing a sharp spike in infections in parts of the north west. 

“The vaccination effort is being stepped up in Bolton and Blackburn and the army will also be deployed to help with surge testing.

Louise Minchin speaking on BBC Breakfast

And leading that vaccination effort in Bolton, is Dr Helen Wall…

“We’ve been working round the clock, hours and hours, with teams that are… err I’m going to get a bit emotional now!

Dr Helen Wall, NHS Bolton Clinical Commissioning Group

The infection rate in Bolton is currently 12 times higher than the national average… and with Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, refusing to rule out a local lockdown, Dr Helen Wall is in a race against time to get “Boltonians” vaccinated. 

But despite the high transmission rates, and Public Health England stating it was a “variant of concern”, on Monday the government gave the greenlight for easing further lockdown restrictions across the country, including in Bolton. Which means yes, you can now sit inside a pub with your friends. 

But if the government is so worried about this new variant, why has it eased lockdown now?


Back in March, uptake of the vaccine in Bolton was only around 76 per cent. That’s a lot less than surrounding areas where it was closer to 92, 93, and even 95 per cent. 

That left Dr Helen Wall with a challenge on her hands… 

As the Indian variant began to spread through the community, 10,000 people in the highest priority groups hadn’t taken up the offer of a vaccine. 

“I’ve been a doctor in this town for many years, and I’ve lived here all my life, I love Bolton and I love Bolton people and I really want us to just crack on now and get to the finish line. If you get offered this vaccine, or any vaccine, just take it, don’t get left behind and don’t leave it because it may be too late.”

Dr Helen Wall, NHS Bolton Clinical Commissioning Group

Through her video pleas on Facebook and work with local leaders, Dr Helen Wall brought the vaccination programme right into the heart of the community.  

Locals may have spotted the Covid-19 vaccination bus driving round. It stops at places like Bolton Cricket Club and the local ASDA supermarket… where people could walk in for a vaccine without making an appointment. And because of the variant, Bolton was even vaccinating people in their twenties and thirties, despite Whitehall saying people under 38 aren’t eligible. 

But is Bolton going to become more like the rest of the UK? Or is the rest of the UK going to get more like Bolton? That’s the question. 


What we do know is that the Indian variant has a mutation which is like the one in the “Californian variant” – and vaccines work well against that. But… and it’s a big but… the variant contains a new mutation, and we’re not sure what it does yet.

Scientists, and in turn, the government, are ‘information poor’ as they say. They need more data from labs and real-world studies. They don’t have the answers yet. So this is where the government’s decision about lockdown comes in. 

“I think this is the most difficult policy decision frankly in the last 15 months or so, it’s very very finely balanced.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme

While the Indian variant could jeopardise plans to end lockdown restrictions… more than 20 million people in the UK have had two doses of the vaccine, and nearly 40 million have had one dose.   

So the real question is whether there’s a ‘decoupling’ taking place. 

Has catching Covid – whether it’s the Indian variant, the Kent variant, or any other variant we know about – …has that been ‘decoupled’, thanks to the vaccine, from how many people end up getting really sick? 

“I think the key question is whether we have decoupled increase in transmission, the number of people who do get infected, decoupled that with the number of people who get ill or need to go to hospital or with long Covid.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme

So that’s really the heart of the government’s dilemma. If we can have more infections because of something like the Indian variant, but we don’t have more people in hospital or dying, then maybe we can carry on opening up as we are. And the early evidence suggests that’s what’s happening. 

More infections are not leading to a big increase in hospitalisation and deaths… so maybe the government’s doing the right thing? But we’re just coming out of quite a strict lockdown, so the fact is there’s not much virus around in the UK at the moment. The amount of virus could change quite quickly. 

What’s clear is that for hotspots like Bolton, social distancing and face coverings will probably need to carry on to slow the spread of Covid. 

And as the government begins to get more information, they’ll quickly figure out if they made the right call or not… That’s why the next round of lockdown easing will have to be considered really carefully. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper