Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told MPs that a new variant of coronavirus has been identified which may be associated with the faster spread in the South East of England.
He said today (December 14) that over 1,000 cases with this variant had been identified, predominantly in the South of England although, cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly
He said: “Similar variants has been identified in other countries over the last few months. We have notified the World Health Organization about this new variant. And Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis at Porton Down.
“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.”
It is not uncommon for viruses to undergo mutations; seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been observed in other countries, such as Spain.
This variant includes a mutation in the ‘spike’ protein. Changes in this part of the spike protein may result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Test and Trace and PHE Joint Medical Advisor, said: “We are investigating a new strain of SARS-CoV-2, predominantly in Kent and the surrounding areas. It is not unexpected that the virus should evolve and it’s important that we spot any changes quickly to understand the potential risk any variant may pose.
“There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography especially where there are increased cases being detected.
“The best way to stop infection is to stick to the rules – wash our hands, wear a face covering and keep our distance from others.”
Mr Hancock also confirmed the move to Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday (December 16) for Greater London, the south and west of Essex, which includes Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow, Epping Forest, Castle Point, Rochford, Maldon, Braintree and Chelmsford. Along with Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea Borough Councils and the South of Hertfordshire, which means Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and the Three Rivers Local Authority.
Talking of tiering decisions, he said: “The first formal review of tiering decisions is taking place this Wednesday, two weeks after the new rules came into force.
“Over the last week, we have seen very sharp exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.
“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.
“In some parts of these areas, the doubling time is around every 7 days. This isn’t just about rising rates among school-age children anymore but in all age groups, including the over-60s. And we know from painful experience that more cases lead to more hospitalisations, and sadly the loss of more of our loved ones.
“Hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent are already under pressure and we know that this doubling of cases will be mirrored in hospital admissions, and it only takes a few doublings for the NHS to be overwhelmed.”
This means that people can only see friends and family they don’t live with, or are in a support bubble with, in outdoor public places, and of course in line with the rule of 6.
Hospitality settings must close, except takeaway and delivery and people should avoid travelling outside their area and reduce the number of journeys they make wherever possible.
He confirmed surge mobile testing is underway in parts of London, Essex and Kent.