Boris Johnson called ministers to an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss how to address growing concerns about the new strain of coronavirus identified in parts of south-east England.
The variant is believed to be more contagious and could trigger potential restrictions, including restrictions on travel between the southeast, including London, and the rest of the country, according to reports, but ministers insisted no decisions have been made.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock raised concerns earlier this week about the new strain when he announced that a large swath of the Southeast would be subjected to the most stringent Level 3 restrictions.
It is understood that government scientists have subsequently presented new evidence to ministers on the behavior of this variant. A government official said: “There is concern that it is more transmissible than the existing strain, and that sense is hardening.”
An announcement could be made on Saturday on how ministers plan to try to contain the new threat, with particular concerns about the risks of travel across the UK in the run-up to Christmas.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), said there was a real possibility that the strain could have a “transmission advantage.”
“The thing about viruses is that they mutate naturally all the time and the ones that are likely to do well are the ones that increase transmission,” he told BBC2’s Newsnight. “We know that this is a new variant, it has been seen in other countries but it seems to be quite widespread which suggests that it has a transmission advantage. Scientists are working very hard to find out what is going on. But it definitely seems possible that this is more easily transmitted. It will make social distancing even more critical. “
Hancock told Commons Monday that cases of the variant were found in nearly 60 areas. He said: “In recent days, thanks to our world-class genomic capabilities in the UK, we have identified a new coronavirus variant that may be associated with more rapid spread in the south-east of England.
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variance. We have currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in almost 60 different local authority areas and the numbers are increasing rapidly.
“Similar variants have been identified in other countries in recent months. We have notified the World Health Organization and Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis on Porton Down. “
Hancock added: “I must emphasize 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 is highly unlikely that this mutation will not respond to a vaccine.
“But it shows that we have to be vigilant and follow the rules and that everyone must take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.”
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, had denied that level 3 was introduced in London and surrounding areas because of the variance during the Downing Street press conference on Monday.
He added that there is no evidence that symptoms are different or worse or that different tests for Covid-19 are required.
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