Parts of England will be placed under the toughest tier of restrictions as a new variant of COVID-19 was detected that appeared to be “growing faster”.
London and surrounding areas will be placed under a “very high alert” level from Wednesday (local time), forcing the closure of almost 14,000 pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes.
The coronavirus variant has been found predominantly in greater London, Kent and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire in southern England but has also appeared in 60 local authority areas.
Health Minister Matt Hancock said there was no evidence the virus was more infectious or immune to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine currently being rolled out across the UK.
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants,” Mr Hancock said.
“I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that the 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.”
“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,” Mr Hancock told the House of Commons.
“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.”
Prof Alan McNally, an expert at the University of Birmingham, told the BBC the new variant had been picked up in testing labs in recent weeks.
“Let’s not be hysterical. It doesn’t mean it’s more transmissible or more infectious or dangerous,” he said.
“It is something to keep an eye on.
“Huge efforts are ongoing at characterising the variant and understanding its emergence.
“It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time.”
Mr Hancock said restrictions would be reintroduced from midnight Wednesday to get on top of a spike in cases which could overwhelm hospitals.
“I know this is difficult news, and I know it will mean plans disrupted, and that for businesses affected, it will be a significant blow,” he told Parliament.
“But this action is absolutely essential, not just to keep people safe, but because we’ve seen early action can help prevent more damaging and longer lasting problems later.”
The WHO said it was aware of a new variant but there was no evidence the strain behaved differently to existing types of the virus.
“We are aware of this genetic variant reported in 1000 individuals in England,” the WHO’s top emergencies expert Mike Ryan told a news briefing in Geneva.
“Authorities are looking at its significance. We have seen many variants, this virus evolves and changes over time.”