Matt Hancock has revealed a “new variant of coronavirus” may be driving the spread of Covid that will see the south east of England moved into tier 3 restrictions from 00.01hrs on Wednesday.
The health secretary told the Commons the “very sharp, exponential rises” in cases requires London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire to go into England’s toughest restrictions – less than two weeks after the second national lockdown ended with the R rate falling below 1.
In some areas the doubling time of the virus is every seven days and it is rising in all age groups said Hancock, explaining hospitals are already “under pressure”.
A “health source” quoted in yesterday’s Telegraph described the latest data for London as “terrifying” while another government source called the figures “catastrophic”.
“Over the last week we have seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire,” said Hancock.
“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.”
New Covid variant being analysed at Porton Down
Hancock told the Commons: “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.”
Hancock said similar variants have been identified in other countries and that the UK has notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the variant which Public Health England is working to analyse at Porton Down.
“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.”
Big blow to hospitality sector
Putting London and major parts of Essex and Hertfordshire under Tier 3 restrictions is a huge blow to hospitality and other sectors in the run-up to Christmas with all pubs, restaurants and indoor venues such as cinemas, theatres and concert halls forced to close.
Sadiq Khan, mayor of London said it is “incredibly disappointing for our businesses who have suffered so much already this year”. He urged people to follow the rules and last night (Sunday) called for schools in the capital to close early up for Christmas to curb the spread of the virus.
Despite the rising rates of infection Downing Street reiterated that the government “has no plans to review the Christmas guidelines” which will see the tiers and restrictions suspended from December 23 to 27.
Public health expert Prof Linda Bauld from Edinburgh University said suspending the restrictions for Christmas is a “mistake” and added that “even though we’re permitted to do this, I think people have to think very carefully whether they can see loved ones outside or do it in a very, very modest way”.
Wales is worst in UK for Covid infections
The other UK nations are similarly fighting to contain the virus with Wales now reporting the highest infection rate with a seven-day average of 425 cases per 100,000.
This is more than four times higher than the rate in Scotland (104 cases per 100,000) and considerably more than Northern Ireland (168) and England (166).
The local authority with the highest rate in the UK is Merthyr Tydfil with 787.4 cases per 100,000. Eight out of the top ten local authorities with the highest rates are in Wales.