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People wearing protective face masks walk through Trafalgar Square, in London, Britain, Aug. 21, 2020.Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Britain’s vaunted effort to control COVID-19 has run into a series of setbacks as cases climb, a new variant spreads and questions swirl about the competence of the Health Secretary.

For weeks the British government has been lauded for its measures to bring the pandemic under control and for rolling out a vaccination program that has managed to inoculate 73 per cent of adults with at least one shot so far. But the rapid spread of a variant first detected in India has raised concerns that the pandemic is far from over and that some lockdown restrictions could remain in place.

The total number of cases of the variant, known as B.1.167.2, has more than doubled in the past week to 6,959 as of Thursday. Health officials said the mutation now accounts for up to 75 per cent of all new infections of COVID-19.

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As a result of the variant, the number of daily infections has climbed to the highest level in six weeks. On Thursday, Britain reported 3,542 new infections, a 20-per-cent increase from the previous week. That’s a far cry from the 60,000 cases reported some days in January at the peak of the outbreak, but the upward trend has worried some health experts who noted that hospitalizations also increased by 20 per cent on Thursday to 826.

“If you look at the pure data [from Thursday], it looks quite worrying,” said Jenny Harries, chief executive of the U.K. Health Security Agency. Dr. Harries told a news conference that one reason for the increase in cases of the variant was a major surge in testing in hotspot regions, particularly northwest England. That has uncovered infections and led to self-isolation to stop transmission. That strategy was showing some positive results, she noted, and infections of B.1.167.2 appeared to be levelling off in some areas and falling in others.

“I think [the variant] is really, really just on the cusp at the moment. If we see cases rise, we’re not clear yet quite whether that is [the variant] taking off or whether it’s actually a rise because we are actively, quite rightly, detecting them and then challenging these chains of transmissions,” she said.

For now, Dr. Harries and other officials remain confident that vaccines are effective against B.1.167.2, but the best protection comes after two doses. So far only 43 per cent of adults in Britain have been fully vaccinated, leaving plenty of people for the variant to infect.

The rising caseload has raised doubts about whether the government can move forward with plans to further ease lockdown restrictions next month. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been keen to lift nearly all remaining measures, including rules about mandatory face coverings, on June 21. But he acknowledged on Thursday that he may have to hold off.

“As I’ve said many times, I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest we have to deviate from the roadmap but we may need to wait,” Mr. Johnson said during a visit to a hospital in Essex.

Compounding matters for Mr. Johnson is a growing controversy surrounding Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Mr. Hancock came under blistering attack on Wednesday from Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former senior adviser who resigned last November. During a seven-hour parliamentary committee hearing, Mr. Cummings said he repeatedly urged Mr. Johnson to fire Mr. Hancock and added that the then-cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, who was the country’s top civil servant, had also lost confidence in the Health Secretary’s honesty last year.

“I said repeatedly from February and March [2020], if we don’t fire the Secretary of State [Matt Hancock] … we are going to kill people and it is going to be a catastrophe,” Mr. Cummings told the committee. Mr. Hancock “should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions.”

Mr. Cummings also said Mr. Johnson was unfit for office and that the PM’s failings throughout the pandemic had cost tens of thousands of lives.

Mr. Hancock dismissed the comments and told the House of Commons on Thursday that the government had done its best to manage the crisis. “These allegations that were put [Wednesday] are serious allegations and I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true and I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout,” he said.

Mr. Johnson also backed the Health Secretary and rejected Mr. Cummings’s assertions. “I think, if I may say so, that some of the commentary I have heard doesn’t bear any relation to reality,” he told reporters during the hospital tour. “At every stage, we’ve been governed by a determination to protect life, to save life and to ensure that our [National Health Service] is not overwhelmed. And we’ve followed to the best we can the data and the guidance we’ve had.”

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