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Unclear if quick spread of new Covid-19 variant found in England is due to 'cause and effect'

England’s CMO Professor Chris Whitty gave an update on a new variant found in south England.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock
Health Secretary Matt Hancock
Image: PA Images

Updated Dec 14th 2020, 6:40 PM

A NEW STRAIN of coronavirus has been identified in southern England as tougher restrictions were imposed on areas in that region and in London.

It’s important to note that there have been a number of Covid-19 variants, but this one has a “quite a few more mutations” than normal, according to the English Chief Medical Officer, and initially appears to be spreading more quickly.

But England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said at a UK coronavirus briefing this evening that this quicker spread may not be a result of ’cause and effect’:

Is it getting more frequent because it’s in a part of the country which the rate of increase is going faster anyway… or is it that this virus itself is possible to transmit more easily? That isn’t really yet clear.

The UK government announced that London and parts of Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire will face Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday following “very sharp, exponential rises” in cases; while Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the ‘new variant’ of Covid-19 is growing faster than the existing variants already found.

The Health Secretary told MPs this afternoon: “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.”

Professor Whitty gave some detail about what is known about this Covid-19 variant so far:

  • There’s no evidence that it’s more dangerous than other variants, or that the symptoms of this variant are any worse or different.
  • The current Covid-19 tests work against this variant, he said, and said it would be “not impossible, but pretty surprising” if the vaccines already in development wouldn’t be effective against the virus:
There isn’t huge selection pressure on this virus… When a very high proportion of the population has been vaccinated, at that point, the new variants that emerge are more likely to be ones which actually are able partially to escape from a vaccine. But there’s no reason to think that would be happening at the moment.

Professor Whitty said that tests are being carried out to confirm that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against this variant. 

“The main reason we’re bringing it to people’s attention is the question about it spreading more quickly and that may be cause and effect or it may not,” he said.

There is an international database to track Covid-19 variants, and Whitty said that the UK is the greater contributor to this database “by far”. 

New restrictions in South-East England

Hancock said it was necessary to move London from Tier 2 to Tier 3 to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

“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.

“In some parts of these areas the doubling time is around every seven days.”

Hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent were already “under pressure”, he warned.

“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.”

2.56763996 Source: PA Graphics

Areas moving to Tier 3 are: Greater London; south and west Essex including Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow, Epping Forest, Castle Point, Rochford, Malden, Braintree and Chelmsford along with Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea borough councils; and the south of Hertfordshire including Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and the Three Rivers local authority.

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As well as the restrictions on hospitality, the move means people should avoid travelling into or out of the area – potentially depriving Oxford Street and London’s other shopping centres of much-needed custom in the run-up to Christmas.

Hancock said: “I know that this is difficult news and I know that it will mean plans disrupted and for businesses affected it will be a significant blow.

“But this action is absolutely essential not just to keep people safe but because we have seen that early action can help prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the decision was “incredibly disappointing” for businesses but urged the capital’s residents to follow the rules.

He added: “The worst thing for London’s businesses and our economy would be yet another full lockdown in the new year.

“That’s why I urge Londoners to follow the Tier 3 rules that the Government is putting in place very closely so that we can drive down infection rates as much as possible.”

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