May 14, 2021
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson COVID-19 Press Conference Transcript May 14
Boris Johnson held a Downing Street press conference on May 14, 2021 to provide updates on COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine distribution. He warned that the Indian variant could pose a threat to the June reopening plan. Read the full transcript of the briefing here.
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Boris Johnson: (07:36)
Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for joining us. Throughout this pandemic, we’ve tried to keep people abreast of the latest information as soon as we get it. Since I spoke to you last Monday, we’ve seen further clusters of the B.1.617.2, the variant first observed in India. We’ve seen it, especially in Bolton, in Blackburn with Darwen and some other parts of the country.
Boris Johnson: (08:01)
At this stage, there are some important unknowns. We believe this variant is more transmissible than the previous one, in other words, it passes more easily from person to person, but we don’t know by how much. I’m told that if it’s only marginally more transmissible, we can continue more or less as planned, but if the variant is significantly more transmissible, we’re likely to face some hard choices. We’re going to be learning a lot more in the coming days and weeks about that.
Boris Johnson: (08:38)
The good news is that so far, we have no evidence to suggest that our vaccines will be less effective in protecting people against severe illness and hospitalization. That means we’re in a different position from the last time we faced a new variant before Christmas, because of the scale of our vaccine rollout, which Public Health England estimates has already saved almost 12,000 lives and prevented over 33,000 people from being hospitalized. I believe we should trust in our vaccines to protect the public whilst monitoring the situation as it develops very closely, because the race between our vaccination program and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter. It’s more important than ever, therefore, that people get the additional protection of a second dose.
Boris Johnson: (09:35)
Following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over-fifties and those clinically vulnerable right across the country, so that those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose. If you are in this group, the NHS will be in touch with you. We will also prioritize first doses for anyone eligible who has not yet come forwards, including the over-forties. I urge anyone in those groups to come forward as soon as you can.
Boris Johnson: (10:12)
At this stage, there is no evidence of increased cases translating into unmanageable pressures on the NHS, even in Bolton, and infections, deaths and hospitalizations nationally remain at their lowest levels since last summer. So, and this is a balanced decision, I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our roadmap, and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday. But I have to level with you, that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June. I must stress that we will do-
Boris Johnson: (11:03)
… in June. And I must stress that we will do whatever it takes to keep the public safe. Our surveillance and data gathering is now so advanced that if there was a danger of the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure, we would see the signs in the data very early on and could react in good time. And that gives us the confidence to continue moving forwards for now.
Boris Johnson: (11:27)
But I urge everyone to exercise the greatest caution because the choices we each make in the coming days will have a material effect on the road ahead. To those living in Bolton and Blackburn, I’m very sorry that you’re once again suffering from this virus, and I know how hard it has been for you having been in a form of national or local lockdown for longer than almost anywhere else, but now it’s more vital than ever that you play your part in stopping the spread. So we won’t be preventing businesses from reopening on Monday, but we will be asking you to do your bit. Take the vaccine when you can. Get your free twice weekly, rapid tests. And if you do test positive, you must self isolate, and we’ll provide financial support to those on low incomes to help them do so.
Boris Johnson: (12:26)
As we move away from living our lives by government rules, and as we learn to live with this virus, and as I said on Monday, we need to make our own decisions about how best to protect ourselves and our loved ones informed by the risks. And for those living in Bolton and other affected areas, there is now a greater risk from this new variant. And so I urge you to be extra cautious.
Boris Johnson: (12:54)
Our best chance of suppressing this variant is to clamp down on it, wherever it is, and we’ll be throwing everything we can at this task. Colonel Russ Miller, commander of the Northwest region will be deployed to support local leaders in managing the response on the ground. There’ll be surge testing with mobile testing units and the Army will be on the streets handing out tests. And there’ll be targeted new activity in Bolton and Blackburn to accelerate the vaccine take-up amongst the eligible cohorts, including longer opening hours at vaccination sites. And to everybody else across the whole country, wherever you live, please get tested twice a week for free and get a jab if you’re eligible. Remember hands, face, space, and fresh air, observed social distancing from those you don’t know. And if you’re seeing loved ones, think really carefully about the risk to them, especially if they haven’t had that second dose, or if it hasn’t yet had time to take full effect.
Boris Johnson: (13:56)
I want us to trust people to be responsible and to do the right thing. That’s the way to live with this virus while protecting the NHS and restoring our freedoms. And it’s very clear now we’re going to have to live with this new variant of the virus as well for some time. So let’s work together and let’s exercise caution and common sense.
Boris Johnson: (14:20)
Thank you very much. I’m now going to ask Chris to do this.
Chris Whitty: (14:23)
Thank you Prime Minister. First slide, please.
Chris Whitty: (14:26)
The first slides are very familiar to people watching these briefings. The first one is the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the UK. And as you can see, that has been on a steady downward path and is stable in terms of the overall numbers at this point in time.
Chris Whitty: (14:43)
Next slide, please.
Chris Whitty: (14:46)
We’re also seeing, as people will be aware, a steady decrease in the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 in the UK as this graph shows.
Chris Whitty: (14:58)
Next slide please. And the number of people who have died following a COVID test has also been steadily decreasing, and has remained very low and remains low now. So the most recent seven day average is 7 deaths per day.
Chris Whitty: (15:17)
Next slide, please.
Chris Whitty: (15:20)
Now we move on to just the newer information and I’m just going to expand slightly on the data that’s there. So what we have here is the weekly number of sequence cases in England of the variant, the 1617.2 first detected in India. And as you can see, this is on a steady upward curve. This is an exponential growth. At the same time as the B117, which is the one which is the principal one circulating in the UK at the moment, has actually been on a downward slope. So there is no doubt that this is going up and earlier this week, we said that we thought that it was as transmissive as B117 and possibly more so. There is now confidence, and SAGE has looked at these data as have various modeling groups, that this variant is more transmissible than B117. Now the question in practical terms over the next two to three weeks is, is this somewhat more transmissible than B117, or is this a lot more transmissible? And that will have implications for the long- term prospects of this epidemic in the UK and indeed the pandemic internationally.
Chris Whitty: (16:37)
Next slide please.
Chris Whitty: (16:40)
And this is most clearly seen at the moment in Bolton. Although, I want to be clear that Bolton is not the only place that has this variant. It is quite widely seeded in a number of parts of England and indeed elsewhere in the four nations of the United Kingdom. And what we have here is rates in Bolton that were going down, but they’ve really now started to go up very significantly over the last couple of weeks.
Chris Whitty: (17:09)
One important thing that we’re not seeing is an increase at this point in time in rates in people over 60. And that is very important because that tends to correlate very closely with people subsequently going into hospital and some people becoming very severely ill< and sometimes sadly dying. So this may be a delay, or it may be that the vaccine is helping to protect those who are older and who are vaccinated. And that’s an important part of what the prime minister has just said.
Chris Whitty: (17:38)
Next slide please.
Chris Whitty: (17:40)
And if we look at the greater Manchester area, around the area where Bolton is, as you can see, there isn’t, at this point in time, a significant uptick in the number of people being admitted to hospital, but it’s early days. And I think this is the point to which we wanted to stress is this is the first time we have been completely confident to the increased transmission. We now need to see what happens over the next two to three weeks.
Chris Whitty: (18:07)
Next slide please. Thank you very much, indeed.
Boris Johnson: (18:11)
Thank you very much, Chris. Let’s go to questions from the public, Alexander in Greater London.
If the variants of concerns, such as the B1617 variant, increases in transmission to an extent whereby it would result in major hospitalization, how soon would you implement restrictions and how many hospitalizations would result in further restrictions?
Boris Johnson: (18:35)
Thanks very much Alexander. Well, I think the answer to that sort of flows pretty much from what I said earlier on, and that is that as soon as we saw that there was a risk of a really serious increase in hospitalizations on the scale that would risk overwhelming the NHS in exponential growth, then of course, we would implement further restrictions immediately. The purpose of this press conference is really to alert people to that necessity and to the extent of the risk that we now see in this Indian variant. But Chris, anything you want to add to that? Thank you. Let’s go to Josh from Corby.
We have universities reopening next week and the restrictions on social gatherings seem to end in June, especially nightclubs. When can the under thirties expect to receive the COVID vaccine? Thank you.
Boris Johnson: (19:29)
Chris, I’m going to ask for your view on the [inaudible 00:19:33].
Chris Whitty: (19:32)
Oh, thank you. So as I think everyone knows, what we’re doing in the UK is going in a very steady, but hopefully rapid and steady progression in terms of vaccination, starting with the most vulnerable people. So those are people particularly of older age, but also pre-existing health conditions. So obviously some people in their thirties, either because they’re health or social care workers, or because they’ve got preexisting health conditions have already been vaccinated. And people indeed under 30. But for the rest of the population, they’re going in a steady, downward progression in terms of age. And the reason for that is that the risk is very strongly correlated with age. And so the rate of vaccination is continuing to be very steady now. We’ve actually got to the point where people are in their upper ages of their thirties. So 38 and 39, and this will steadily move down over the next weeks are being vaccinated. And we hope to get all the way through to everybody having their first vaccine by the end of July. That is the aim.
Chris Whitty: (20:44)
Additionally, as the Prime Minister has said, the reasons for people of all ages, now, an aim to accelerate, to some degree, the point where people get their second vaccination, and there are some advantages to having a second vaccination later, and some data on that in fact came out in the last couple of days. But what we do want to do is make sure that people have their second vaccines and that’s why the Prime Minister talked about the fact we’re shortening the period, from 12 weeks to eight weeks. And this is because we think that people who’ve got a second vaccine will have greater protection, not only against the original variants, but also against this new variant. So it is very important that people who get their first vaccine also go on to get their second vaccine. There’s very clear evidence that people are taking that offer up very strongly across the UK and indeed in Bolton and surrounding areas.
Boris Johnson: (21:42)
Thanks very much Christian and Josh. Fergus Walsh of the BBC.
Fergus Walsh: (21:48)
Prime Minister, how likely do you think it is that the final unlocking will go ahead on the 21st of June? And for Professor Whitty, do you think that all those over 18 in hotspot areas…
Fergus Walsh: (22:03)
All those over 18 in hotspot areas should now have immediate access to a first dose of vaccine.
Boris Johnson: (22:09)
Thanks, Fergus. I know that everybody will be asking that question now. I think, the truth is at this stage, we simply can’t say for certain as things stand. You’ve heard it today, the numbers of infections, even with the new variant, remain low overall across the country, even in Bolton where there’s been this spike in the new variant. We’re not seeing significant new numbers of hospitalizations. It remains broadly flat.
Boris Johnson: (22:45)
And the situation is different from last year in this crucial sense that we are in the throws of an extraordinary vaccine rollout, which everybody knows and understands. So we’ve just got to wait and see, those two things. The extent to which the new variant may be more transmissible, and also the extent to which the vaccines have been able to cut the link between infection and hospitalization and death. And that we just need to see a little bit more about that, I’m afraid, Fergus, before we can really say much more at this stage. We will continue to proceed with caution, but obviously, we rule nothing out. And as soon as we can say more about stage four, obviously, we will.
Chris Whitty: (23:44)
On the question you asked me, there’s been a debate about this, but the JCVI, the Joint Committee on Vaccination Immunization, which brings together all the experts on this has been very clear on this. Now, the fundamental issue is that we have a finite supply at any given moment in time of vaccine. So if you vaccinate one person, by definition, you’re not vaccinating another. Now, we know certain things about these vaccines. We have very high confidence that the vaccines provide very substantial protection against people dying and people having severe illness and people being hospitalized, less protection against people having more mild disease and some protection, but less still, against transmission. And the expectation is with new variants, that if you start to lose some vaccine efficacy, you lose it in the opposite direction. So in a sense, you first lose the very low protection of people who are having asymptomatic or very mild disease. Then you lose the protection against the more severe disease, and finally against the really most of the disease in people having mortality.
Chris Whitty: (24:47)
Now, the reason I’m giving that long preamble is it’s to explain why it is that the thing we know this vaccine absolutely can and should do is to protect those who are most vulnerable. And that is very heavily predicated by age with this particular virus. So therefore, if we took people, took vaccine away from groups, let’s say, in their late thirties and transferred them to groups of people who are 18 or 20, who are at much lower risk of a severe disease, the view of JCVI, and I think this is the majority view. It’s not an absolute view, but the view of JCVI has clearly been, this would lead to a net disadvantage overall. So the sensible thing to do is to prioritize the vaccines to those who are most at risk in all the places across the UK. Because this virus is a risk, absolutely everywhere, but there are very strong aims to try and accelerate and make easier vaccination in the areas which are most affected by this virus. So it’s not that we’re not trying to take the geographical spread of this new variant, the B617.2, into account. We very much do want to do that.
Boris Johnson: (25:58)
Thanks very much. Emily Morgan, ITV.
Emily Morgan: (26:03)
Thanks, Prime minister. Given that the easing of restrictions is still going to go ahead on Monday, what would you say to someone who’s planning to travel [inaudible 00:26:11] because they come back to you, visit family. Would you say that they should still go? And should they stay the night?
Boris Johnson: (26:18)
Thanks, Emily. I’m very glad you asked that because I do think it’s important that, in respect of the areas where we are seeing these spikes, these higher incidences of the new variant, given the caution that I think we have to exercise with this new variant, the risk of extra transmissibility, I would urge people just to think twice about that. That’s what we’re saying. I think that we want people in those areas to recognize that there is extra risk, an extra disruption, a threat of disruption to progress caused by this new variant and just to exercise their discretion and judgment, in a way I’m sure that they have been throughout this pandemic and will continue to do so, I hope very much.
Boris Johnson: (27:13)
Okay. Thank you. Some Coats of Skye.
Sam Coats: (27:20)
Hello Prime Minister. These are your four tests for moving to the next stage of the unlocking of the roadmap. The fourth very explicitly says that there can’t be variants of concern changing the assessment. Given the cases of the Indian variant have almost tripled over a week, how are you saying that you’ve passed that test? How are you giving you a green light on that? And what happens if, and how can you only you say that you pass these, because you’re assessing them nationally? If you just looked at one region like the Northwest, might you find that you actually fail several of them, and would you lock back down regionally? To Chris Witty, there’s some data out today suggesting that the Indian variant isn’t really rising in the over 45s, a bit younger, I think, than you were saying, is that right? And to Sir Patrick Vallance, according to Public Health England data, at least 122 passengers arriving from Delhi and Mumbai between late March and April, the 26th, were carrying this variant. In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake not to close the border from there sooner?
Boris Johnson: (28:26)
Well, Sam, I’m going to try and pick up the question you directed to Patrick since he’s unfortunately not here. You probably can’t see that for some reason, but I will just say on the borders issue, what the relevant committee was looking at was the threat of variants of concern coming from abroad. And at that stage, India was not identified as having a VAC, a variant of concern. So that was why the decision was taken. Pakistan, for instance, I think had three times as much of variants of concern. They had in particular, the South African variant. So that was the reason for that decision. But don’t forget that everybody coming, forgive me, from India or indeed anywhere else, had to face very, very tough quarantine rules. They had to self-isolate. They had to produce their passenger locator form and so on.
Boris Johnson: (29:28)
But on your fundamental question about the fourth test, I do think that… I just go back to the original point. We are concerned about this variant and that’s the purpose and we’re serving notice that we do think, or I think, it certainly may cause disruption to our attempts to continue down the roadmap, but they don’t, at the moment, change the assessment about step three. Because if you look at the numbers, as I’ve said, even in Bolton, you’re not seeing a significant increase in hospitalizations, and the overall numbers across the country remain, as we’ve heard repeatedly, low and quite flat. So they’re not changing the assessment at present. But, what we’re saying is that the public need to be aware of this variant and particularly in areas where it is more prevalent. And that’s because of these questions about increased transmissibility. And we just need a bit more time to see how that pans out.
Boris Johnson: (30:52)
And as I said earlier on, whether it’s at the end of increased transmissibility or at the lower end. If it’s at the lower end, then I think we don’t have very much to worry about. But if it’s at the higher end, then we will certainly have to think about what extra measures we need to take to protect the public. And I want to be clear that we will react fast. We will react as soon as we can see clear and unambiguous data about this, and we will do whatever it takes to protect the people of this country.
Chris Whitty: (31:27)
On the questions you asked me, and I’m actually going to pick up on the four tests additionally. And if you think about the tests and compare them to where we were this time last week, virtually everything is the same situation. There is one very important difference, and that’s the one I want to concentrate on, but just to go through them, vaccine deployment program remains successful. Vaccines reducing hospitalizations and deaths, very clear evidence. They are, nothing has changed on that. Infection rates not causing an HS pressure. You saw the data on that, it’s really clear. And on the variants of concern, excluding the B617. 2, really no change. Most of them are relatively flat. They’re haven’t gone away as a threat, but they are staying relatively stable. In terms of the 617.2 variant, one thing also remains the same, which is our current assessment of the vaccine, likely the vaccine being effective remains what it was, which we think it will probably protect against severe disease and hospitalization. We’re not so confident about the degree to which it protects against milder disease and transmission. And that’s just, we don’t have the data. That would come with time.
Chris Whitty: (32:35)
The thing which has changed is the very clear view now, I think that everyone has looked at it, this is more transmissible than the B117 and we expect, over time, this variant will overtake and come to dominate in the UK, in the way that B117 took over and indeed other variants have taken over prior to that. Now, as the Prime Minister said, there are some things that we really want to look for-
Chris Whitty: (33:03)
… said, there are kind of some things that we really want to look for. The most important is: Is this a bit more transmissible or is this a lot more transmissible? If it’s a lot more transmissible, that would imply we could have a really significant surge. If it’s a bit more transmissible, that would imply we will have a bit more pressure. There’s a bit more of a race between the vaccination program and the virus, but we are broadly in the same territory. That’s a really critical question to which we do not yet have the answer.
Chris Whitty: (33:28)
Then the other thing we do not yet know is in practice what the impact of the vaccination program, and this goes to your second question to me, the question about people over 45. We don’t yet have a big enough number, I think, to be confident about this. It could be that it is initially circulating in younger ages because that’s what has always happened previously. You start off, people mix more when younger, the initial circulation in younger ages, and then it moves up the age range. Maybe it’s just a delay because of that, or maybe it’s a delay because the vaccine is actually providing a firebreak, a barrier to reduce the transmission up the ages into those who are most vulnerable. Clearly, the second of those is by far the more preferable. But that we cannot say with confidence at this point, and that’s the reason we need to look very carefully at this new variant, see how much faster it’s growing than the old variant, and look at this issue about vaccines in practice.
Boris Johnson: (34:25)
Thanks very much. Sam List of The Express.
Sam List: (34:32)
Thank you, Prime Minister. If you were forced to take the drastic decision to delay June 21st, realistically, how long will that delay be? Will it be a matter of weeks or months? Will we still get the great British summer that we were promised?
Sam List: (34:49)
To Professor Whitty, given the Indian variant is spreading mainly among young, unvaccinated people, should people in those groups avoid taking advantages of the new freedoms being introduced on Monday, such as going to the pub?
Boris Johnson: (35:07)
Well, Sam, I’m afraid I really can’t speculate about that in too much detail at this stage, because as you’ve heard earlier on, there’s just some things we still don’t know about this new variant. We just need a bit more time. I think a couple of weeks, we will know much, much more than we do now.
Boris Johnson: (35:27)
But I just want to say that, I know this has been a kind of, one of those press conferences when everybody hears something slightly disappointing, or slightly worrying in the sense that there’s a new variant that is a significant concern for us, does pose the real risk of disruption to our plans, and I’ve got to be absolutely clear with you about that, but it is also possible, Sam, that we could still be on the right track. We could still be set fair. The big difference between this discover, this new variant now and seeing the spike that we’re seeing in Bolton, the difference of that phenomenon now is that, and last Christmas, last December, is of course that we have the vaccines. We’re in a very different world now, but as Chris says, we need to be absolutely clear about transmissibility and about the effect of the vaccines on this new variant. We’ll know a lot more in a couple of weeks.
Boris Johnson: (36:38)
Hugo Guy of The I.
Hugo Guy: (36:43)
Thank you. Prime Minister and Professor Whitty, what effect will the decision to prioritize second doses of the vaccine have on the rollout overall? Does this mean younger people will have to wait longer to get their first dose than they would’ve previously expected, or is the government finally going to dip into its stockpile of more than 10 million doses that have been delivered to the UK, but not yet administered and perhaps speed up the overall pace of the rollout to match Wales, which as you know, is now quite far ahead of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in how many people it’s reached with at least one dose?
Boris Johnson: (37:25)
Chris, you going to …
Chris Whitty: (37:26)
I can certainly take that.
Chris Whitty: (37:29)
The prioritization of the second doses will not, we think, delay the situation, the rollout for people who are in younger ages, and there are a number of reasons for that, but one of the key ones is that the JCVI advice is that acceptive rates went up very high and we were not at that stage yet at this point in time. Their primary recommendation is that people under the age of 40 will be vaccinated in most cases with one of the messenger RNA vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, whereas the re-vaccination program is largely, at this point, with A-Zed vaccines. The expectation is this should not lead to significant delays. We don’t have that trade off, which has been the issue elsewhere.
Chris Whitty: (38:13)
To reassure people, we are very clear that we still want to maintain a slightly longer gap in terms of vaccination, eight weeks rather than the rather shorter periods in some countries. That is because we do think there are some advantages to that. We’re doing this relatively steadily. That was the advice from JCVI, and I think they’ve given some information about that today.
Boris Johnson: (38:38)
Thank you very much. Alistair Smout of Reuters.
Alistair Smout: (38:44)
Prime Minister, do you think you might one day look back on the decision to use restrictions across the whole of England this Monday as a big mistake? With international travel restarting, should Brits realistically expect to get a summer holiday given the risk of importing new variants as happened with this one? Thanks.
Boris Johnson: (39:04)
Thanks very much, Alistair.
Boris Johnson: (39:07)
I think that we’re in a different position from much of the past year, 14 months, 16 months or so, simply because we were able to see so much so early. Thanks to the testing that we’re doing, thanks to the genomic sequencing, we’re able to spot stuff really very fast. What we’re trying to say at this press conference is that we do see a real risk of disruption in the new variant. We think that on balance, it’s right to proceed with the current plans, given the very low numbers, given the fact that hospitalizations are not rising. But obviously we remain very, very alive to any change in the data and we will react accordingly. I think the same spirit of caution should be applied to people who are thinking of traveling abroad. There’s a very limited list, as you know, and we will certainly be making sure that people going to, traveling abroad will be subject to all the tests and constraints that people would expect to prevent the virus being re-imported. That’s why it’s such a tiny list of countries. I don’t expect that we’ll be adding to it very rapidly. Indeed, we will be maintaining a very, very tough border regime for the foreseeable future, I imagine.
Boris Johnson: (40:47)
It’s just too early I’m afraid, Alistair, to talk about exactly what the summer will be like. We’ve seen this new variant arrive. We’ve been watching it for a while. We’re now seeing the risk, that it’s more transmissible than B1117. We have to take account of that. We have to alert people. We have to give guidance and advice to people in areas where it’s been surging, even if the numbers are currently low. As I’ve said to everybody, we’ll know more in a couple of weeks. We’ll know a lot more in a couple of weeks and we’ll keep everybody updated as fast as we can.
Boris Johnson: (41:28)
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible that we’ll be able to go ahead with Step Four. I don’t think that’s the case at all. But it does mean there is now the risk of disruption and delay, and delay to that ambition. We have to be utterly realistic about that. I want to stress again, we take nothing off the table as a means of controlling this virus and this variant, and we will do whatever it takes to keep you all safe. Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.
Boris Johnson: (42:04)