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A new strain of coronavirus spreading rapidly in the south-east of England has prompted fears that the country could be forced into a third national lockdown in the new year.
Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, said news of a new strain was a “very major concern”, and illustrated the importance of reducing community transmission. Farrar said early evidence indicated the strain would lead to a greater number of infections, and that “acting urgently now is critical”.
He warned the mutation meant we “may be entering a less predictable phase”. “There is no part of the UK and globally that should not be concerned. As in many countries, the situation is fragile,” he said. “It may feel harder during times we normally celebrate and enjoy with family and friends, but we must keep doing all we can to stay safe. The impact of increased interactions over the festive period is a huge concern as infections rise and possibility of a new variant.”
Dr Ewan Birney, the deputy director general of the European Molecular Biological Laboratory, said while viruses mutated regularly, the recent strain was alarming scientists.
“When there’s growth [of a virus], there’s always some strains growing and some shrinking. What’s concerned scientists this time around is that there’s been one quite different strain. It has quite a few more, different mutations, and it’s been growing very strongly in the south-east of England,” he told the BBC’s Today programme on Saturday.
While it is difficult to say whether the new strain is responsible for an increase in coronavirus transmission in the region, Birney said “the evidence is pointing in that direction”, adding that “most scientists on the transmissibility of this new strain think it’s going faster”.
However, the virus may become less virulent as it mutates, meaning it can “transmit faster but cause less disease”, he said.
It is unclear whether the Oxford/AstraZenica vaccine, which is being assessed by regulators, will be effective against the new strain, but Birney said all coronavirus vaccines in development in the UK had been tested against all strains currently in circulation.
Boris Johnson held an emergency meeting with ministers on Friday to tackle concerns around the strain.
Reports suggest that the strain could lead to restrictions on travel between the south-east and the rest of the country, particularly as Christmas is expected to lead to an increase in cross-UK travel, but ministers insisted on Friday night that no firm plans had been made.
According to Sky News, the government’s emergency scientific advisory committee (Sage) is to meet on Monday to discuss the strengthening of tier three restrictions.
Former health secretary and chair of the Commons health select committee, Jeremy Hunt, said the situation was “very serious” and could lead the government to change its policy on Christmas gatherings.
“If they don’t want to change the law, they could be much clearer on the advice they give people, and it’s clearly not advisable to mix households indoors unless there’s a very good reason, such as family member worried it might be their last Christmas,” he said.
Hunt said it was “difficult to judge” if a new lockdowns would be needed in England and Scotland in the new year, describing the transmission rates in the north of England as “on a knife edge”.
“In the north-east and north-west, infection levels are going up, but they’re still much lower than they have been,” he said. “The new strain doesn’t seem to have spread as much as it has in the south.”
However, he said the tier system would need to be reviewed if England was set to re-enter it in the new year.
“We do need to rethink what happens in lockdown. Sometime even when we call it a lockdown, it isn’t sufficient to control the virus,” he said.
“The most important thing now is we are very close to the end. The kind of debates we had in the summer on these controls on liberty are really immaterial now; by the end of February and March we are still very much hoping that a majority of people who are vulnerable will have had the vaccine. We really are in the final stage of this battle.”
Wales announced new regulations beginning on Christmas Eve amid surging cases this week, including the closure of non-essential shops, with hospitality venues set to close at 6pm on Christmas Day. On 28 December, tighter restrictions for household mixing, staying at home, holiday accommodation and travel will apply, as part of new “level 4” restrictions.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: New coronavirus strain in south-east England prompts fears of third lockdown | World news