A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in the U.K., the country’s health secretary said, as he announced that London would be placed under tougher coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas period, to stem a surge in infection rates in the capital.
More than 1,000 cases of the new variant have been found, which may explain the fastest spread of cases in the south of England, Matt Hancock told the House of Commons on Monday afternoon.
Cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are “increasing rapidly,” Hancock said.
However, he stressed that there is “currently nothing to suggest” that this variant of the virus is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, he said. “But it shows we’ve got to be vigilant,” he added.
The World Health Organization has been informed and government scientists are studying the new variant in Porton Down — the U.K.’s military’s research facility.
Hancock’s comments came as clinics run by family doctors across more than 100 locations in England were preparing to receive the approved vaccine developed by U.S. drug company Pfizer
and its German partner BioNTech
on Monday, with some offering shots within hours as part of the next stage of the country’s mass vaccination program.
The London weekly case rate at 225 per 100,000 people is already the highest regional rate in the country. Hancock said the surge in cases would mean that London, along with parts of Essex, will move into tier 3 — England’s highest level of coronavirus restrictions — from 00:01 GMT on Dec. 16.
This means all hospitality settings, such as bars and restaurants must close, except for takeaway and delivery. “I know that this is difficult news. I know it will mean plans disrupted, and that for businesses affected, this will be a very significant blow,” Hancock said.
Prof. Kevin Fenton, London regional director for Public Health England, said: “We are now in a situation of exponential growth which, if left unchecked, would lead to a rapid escalation in cases and hospitalizations that could overwhelm our NHS [National Health Service] services over the festive period and into the New Year.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan described the move as “incredibly disappointing” for businesses, but acknowledged that the “virus is accelerating” and urged all Londoners to follow the rules.
London’s new restrictions were announced just hours after Germany said that it will impose a national lockdown to curb the spread of infection rates in the country ahead of Christmas.
The new measures, agreed on Sunday by Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states, will last from Dec. 16 until Jan. 10, and will see schools and nonessential shops across the country closed. Bars and restaurants will remain shut, while the sale of fireworks will be banned ahead of New Year’s Eve.
“I would have wished for lighter measures. But due to Christmas shopping, the number of social contacts has risen considerably,” Ms Merkel told reporters in Berlin, adding: “There is an urgent need to take action.”
Businesses that are forced to close during the latest lockdown will receive help in paying up to 90% of costs, or up to €500,000 a month, the German government said.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s neighbors Finland and Norway said over the weekend that they were on standby to provide the country with medical assistance, should its government request it. The offer comes after Swedish officials said last week that Stockholm’s intensive-care units were almost full to capacity, according to the country’s public broadcaster Sveriges Radio.
“We have not received an official request for help, but we assess on a daily basis what the hospital situation looks like and we are, of course, ready to help Sweden if we can,” said Kirsi Varhila, permanent secretary at Finland’s ministry of social affairs and health, to Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.
After months of voluntary measures and no lockdowns, the Swedish government performed a U-turn in November, introducing enforced restrictions on public gatherings to curb the spread of the virus. Later that month, Sweden’s state epidemiologist said that the country had not seen evidence of herd immunity slowing the spread of coronavirus in the country.