A second highly infectious new strain of the coronavirus has been discovered in the United Kingdom, prompting the country’s government to impose even more restrictions.
This news comes just days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Tier 4 restrictions across much of Britain, blaming a variant of the virus thought to be “up to 70 per cent more transmissible” than the normal version.
At a media conference today, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK had detected two cases of another new strain, which had come in from South Africa.
“The fight against the virus is a global effort, and we’re constantly vigilant and looking around the world,” Mr Hancock said.
“As part of our surveillance, and thanks to the impressive genomic capability of the South Africans, we’ve detected two cases of another new variant of coronavirus here in the UK.
“Both are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks.
“The chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer, and others, met their South African counterparts over the last day, and we are incredibly grateful to the South African government for the rigour of their science, and the openness and transparency with which they have rightly acted, as we did when we discovered a new variant here.”
The British government is responding by quarantining anyone infected with the new variant, as well as their close contacts, and restricting travel from South Africa.
“Most importantly, anyone in the UK who has been in South Africa in the past fortnight, and anyone who is a close contact of someone who’s been in South Africa in the last fortnight, must quarantine immediately,” said Mr Hancock.
“By quarantine, I mean they must restrict all contact with any other person whatsoever. We will be changing the law to give this legal effect imminently.
“These measures are temporary while we investigate further this new strain.”
Public health adviser Dr Susan Hopkins stressed that this second new strain of the virus was distinct from the one Britain’s been dealing with, though both of them appear to spread more easily.
“The new variant in the UK, which we’ve identified, is very different to the variant in South Africa. It’s got different mutations. Both of them look like they’re more transmissible,” Dr Hopkins said.
“We have more evidence on transmission for the UK variant, because we’ve been studying that with great detail with academic partners. We’re still learning about the South African variant.
“Clearly this needs to be continually monitored, and we have a genomic system in place to do that. We are looking to constantly enhance the detection of cases in travellers.”
The UK recorded 39,237 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, breaking its previous record. It also suffered 744 deaths, which is the highest figure since late April.
Announcing the Tier 4 restrictions earlier this week, Mr Johnson’s rhetoric was stark.
“We have to act to protect the public,” he said, having previously promised that restrictions would actually be relaxed over the Christmas period.
“The spread is being driven by the new variant of the virus. It appears to spread more easily, and may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the earlier strain,” he said.
“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.
“I seriously believe there is no alternative open to me.”
While there are only two known cases of the newest variant in Britain, it is already more widespread in South Africa, where the it currently accounts for roughly 90 per cent of new infections.
Yesterday the nation’s Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, urged South Africans not to “panic” and stressed that vaccines developed in response to the virus should still work on the mutated version.
“There’s no need to panic, to think that there’s some new treatment that we’re going to need,” Dr Mkhize said.
However Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, sounded a warning about the variant potentially affecting young people more severely.
“Where in the past, the younger people were not really that sick, we are now seeing that people – especially overweight people – around about the age between 20 and 30 are also in ICU with severe inflammation from this virus,” she said.