A new variant of the coronavirus has been identified in the UK, and it may be responsible for a rise in cases in the south-east of England.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK had notified the World Health Organisation. There is nothing to suggest the new variant causes more serious disease or is resistant to vaccines, he added.
The announcement came as London and other parts of the south-east moved into England’s highest tier of coronavirus restrictions, Tier 3.
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants, 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 told UK MPs.
“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 personality responsibility not to spread this virus.”
Hancock also confirmed that London will move into Tier 3 of COVID restrictions form Wednesday. Under Tier 3, restaurants, pubs and cafes will close but will still be able to offer takeaway services. Indoor entertainment venues such as cinemas and bowling alleys will also close. Gyms, hairdressers and shops will be allowed to remain open. Groups of up to six will be able to meet outside, but not in a private garden.
But despite the rise in cases and the new restrictions, coronavirus rules will still be relaxed across London and the country as a whole over a five-day period between December 23rd and 27th.
Other parts of England are already under Tier 3, including Greater Manchester, Bristol, and parts of the north-east and West Midlands.
The decision to bring London into the highest tier comes after cases across the capital have continued to rise. Stats from Public Health England have shown that between December 2nd to 8th, 20,135 people tested positive in London, at a rate of 225 cases per 100,000 people. This is higher than the previous week, where the rate was 166 per 100,000 people, and well above the average for England. The highest cases were amongst school-aged children, and in boroughs like Havering and Barking and Dagenham.
Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has called for increased testing of school children, as well as support for businesses may be badly affected by the coronavirus restrictions.
“The surge in coronavirus cases across our capital is deeply concerning,” he said. “I am calling on the Government to urgently provide additional support to get the spread under control, save lives and livelihoods and ensure our NHS is not overwhelmed this winter.”
“The rollout of the vaccine has provided some light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel, but this is no time to be complacent and we cannot let so many months of compromise and sacrifice go to waste,” he added. “Time is running out to get the virus under control in our city which is why I urge the Government to heed my call and provide us with the extra support we desperately need.”