Clusters of the Indian variants of Covid-19 have been found across England, including in care homes, the Guardian has learned, amid growing fears about the speed with which they are spreading in communities.
The latest update of case numbers of these variants was due to be published on Thursday. But leaked emails seen by the Guardian show the announcement was delayed until at least Friday because of the local elections.
The documents also suggest officials from Public Health England are poised to escalate one of the variants to one “of concern”.
Scientists have been assessing three closely related variants first detected in India and since found in the UK because they may have mutations that help the virus to evade the body’s immune responses and be more transmissible due to their spike protein mutations.
All three of the variants – known as B16171, B16172 and B16173 – have been designated “under investigation” by Public Health England.
According to internal documents from PHE, dated to 5 May and seen by the Guardian, the assessment of the ongoing risk to public health from B16172 is “high”.
Every week PHE releases new data revealing the latest case numbers of variants that are either under investigation or deemed of concern.
But in an email containing details of the situation, a staff member at the Department of Health and Social Care wrote: “Data publication [is] to be delayed 24 hours from Thursday to Friday given it is local elections tomorrow.”
PHE said the delay was due to “a processing issue”.
In addition, the email said one of the India variants – likely B16172 – could be upgraded to a variant of concern as soon as Friday, as part of a broader set of communications.
In the PHE documents, 48 clusters of Indian variant B16172 have been identified, including those linked to secondary schools and religious gatherings, with evidence of community transmission in some of the clusters.
In London clusters have been located in care homes.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, saidthe variant was “increasing very rapidly” and that “at the current doubling rate it could easily become dominant in London by the end of May or early June”.