Two cases of another new strain of Covid-19 linked to South Africa have been identified in the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed here on Wednesday.
Like the UK variant identified earlier, the new variant of the novel coronavirus is also driving a massive resurgence of the disease in South Africa, with experts warning the country is probably facing a much larger second wave.
“Both [cases of the new variant] are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks,” Hancock said, addressing a briefing from 10 Downing Street.
“This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the UK,” he said.
The minister confirmed immediate restrictions on travel from South Africa and the government’s urgent message being for anyone who has been in South Africa or been in contact with someone linked with the country in the last fortnight to immediately quarantine.
Analysis on the new mutation and its trajectory in the UK is meanwhile being analysed by scientific experts at Porton Down, the country’s specialist laboratory in south west England.
As a result, even more parts of the UK are set to be put under the strictest level of lockdown after ministers held talks earlier on Wednesday following the UK registering 36,804 positive coronavirus cases, the largest daily number of infections recorded at any time during the pandemic.
Millions more in the east and south-east England will be placed into the Tier 4 highest alert level from December 26, celebrated as Boxing Day the day after Christmas, as the new UK variant of coronavirus continues to show high transmissibility.
The minister also revealed that the Oxford University vaccine being produced by AstraZeneca has submitted its full data package for regulatory approval, even as the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine rollout continues.
“I know how hard 2020 has been for everybody… But we mustn’t give up now we know that we can control this virus we know we can get through this together… I know from the bottom of my heart, that there are brighter skies ahead,” he said.
The briefing comes as the new variant identified in the UK last week, named VUI-202012/01 and with much higher transmissibility, led to several countries including India cutting off transport links with the UK in an effort to try and contain its spread outside Britain.
The backlog of lorries built up on the UK border with France have now begun to gradually clear up after an agreement was reached.
France agreed to lift its ban on UK arrivals on the condition of a negative coronavirus test. However, there have been reports of scuffles on the UK-France border as truckers face days ahead before the nearly 1,500 lorries can start moving towards their destinations.
During what is an annual festive and holiday period in the UK with Christmas and New Year, millions in the country have had their plans to meet friends and family scuppered after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson abandoned a planned five-day “Christmas bubble” after scientists confirmed the new Covid-19 variant was spreading more rapidly.
Under the revised rules, only people living in tiers one to three are permitted to socialise in a bubble of three households on December 25 for Christmas Day. Those in Tier 4 areas must only celebrate Christmas with members of their own household and support bubble. They will not be allowed to travel to other tiers to see family and friends.
The Opposition Labour Party has accused Johnson of having “always been behind the Covid curve” and urged him to move quickly.
“If the scientific advice is tougher restrictions, don’t sit on it for weeks like you did last time, don’t dither, don’t delay – because that has disastrous consequences, take the action that is needed now to save lives,” said Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth.
However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has written to Johnson to say his party will back any government moves to tighten restrictions if that is what scientists recommend.