A new Covid-19 variant has been identified in the UK, the health secretary has revealed, suggesting it could be linked to the rapid spread of the virus in south-east England as millions more people in London are being moved into the toughest restrictions.
Cases of the strain have been found in almost 60 areas, Matt Hancock disclosed, although he stressed that clinical advice suggested it was “highly unlikely” the mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.
It came as he confirmed that the capital, as well as the majority of Essex and parts of Hertfordshire, would be placed into tier 3 from Wednesday after an “exponential” rise in cases.
Updating the Commons on Monday, Hancock told MPs: “Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the fastest spread in the south-east of England.
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variance. We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly.
“Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the last few months. We’ve notified the World Health Organization about this new variant and Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis at Porton Down.”
He added: “I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine. But it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.”
The extension of tier 3 restrictions comes less than a fortnight after England came out of its second national lockdown. Announcing the move shortly after briefing MPs in affected regions via a call, Hancock warned that in some areas the doubling time of the virus was every seven days – highlighting that rates were increasing in all age groups, including the over-60s.
“Over the last week we have seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire,” he said. “We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant but no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out.”
Hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent – the latter already in tier 3 – were already “under pressure”, he said.
In a blow to the capital’s hospitality industry, pubs and restaurants are among businesses that must close their doors as they are limited to takeaway or delivery services in tier 3. Sports fans are also not allowed to attend events in the most restrictive tier, putting an end to the return of supporters at professional football matches in London this month.
Indoor cinemas, theatres and concert halls must also be closed to visitors in tier 3. Meanwhile, in tier 3, like existing tier 2 restrictions, social mixing between households is banned indoors unless a support or childcare bubble exists. The rule of six applies in some outdoor areas, such as public parks. It is recommended that people should minimise travel both to or within a tier 3 area, unless it is necessary, Hancock has said.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, described the move as “incredibly disappointing for our businesses who have suffered so much already this year” but urged people to follow the rules.
There are nearly 9 million people living in London, according to the Office for National Statistics’ mid-2019 estimates. The same statistics indicate almost 1.5 million people reside in Essex. The majority of the county will move into tier 3, including: Basildon, Brentwood, Epping Forest, Harlow, Castle Point, Rochford, Maldon, Braintree, Chelmsford, as well as a Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea.
In the south of Hertfordshire, four areas would move into the highest tier, Hancock said, including Hertsmere, where an estimated 104,919 people live, Broxbourne (97,279) and Watford (96,577) and the Three Rivers local authority (93,323).