Britons are being warned to lock down their homes for Christmas today by ministers and other experts. This is because travel bans will not stop a new, highly-mutant strain of the virus from reaching Britain.
While scientists stressed the need to be prepared for any ‘changes in restrictions’, there is growing concern about the possibility of vaccines becoming less effective due to an allegedly ‘worst-ever Covid variant.
Last night, the government banned South African and five other countries from entering Britain. However, no confirmed cases were found in the UK. Top experts believe that it could if the strain grows faster and is able to avoid any current jabs.
Grant Shapps (Transport Secretary) suggested that the goal of travel restrictions was to “slow down potential entry into” the country.
Prof. Adam Finn is a member the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. He said that more information needs to be gathered about the severity of the threat – which has already caused an increase in South African infections.
Professor Finn stated that he couldn’t predict how the developments would impact Christmas.
He said, “On one hand, it’s not my intention to cause unnecessary anxiety, but on another hand, I believe we should all be prepared for the possibility that there will be a change in restrictions.”
The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations – the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta – suggesting it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible than any version before it.
The variant – which is likely to be named ‘Nu’ by the World Health Organization in the coming days – has caused an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa and has already spread to three countries – including Hong Kong and Botswana, where it is believed to have emerged.
In response, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.
Israel, which also red-listed the six nuclear nations as a first nation to do so, was the first.
However, no cases have been found in the UK. Anyone who came back from South Africa during the past 10 days is going to be contacted by the UK and requested to undergo a screening.
Currently, between 500-700 people travel to the UK each day from South Africa. However, this number could rise as Christmas approaches.
Director of the Rosalind Franklin institute, Professor James Naismith said that if the ban spreads faster than it should, it may delay its arrival. However, he explained to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, “If it spreads quickly, then yes, it will arrive. But if it spreads quicker, it’s a lesson we have learned from many other variants it has been through, it will eventually get there.”
“We should not despair. Vaccines will work, so go get your booster or first dose of vaccines.
‘Secondly there are new medicines coming along… these will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation.
“We are much more successful in controlling this disease at other hospitals so that it’s not permanent doom.
The following chart displays the percentage of South African cases with the B.1.1.529 (blue) or Indian “Delta (red) variants. The chart suggests that Delta’s mutant strain may be outcompeted in this province by the mutant strain.
Slide above shows how many tests picked up a SGTF variant, a signature of B.1.1.529. This suggests that Covid may be rapidly spreading in this country. This slide was shown at the briefing held today by South Africa’s Government
Slide 1 shows the variants detected in South Africa’s provinces since October 2012. The above slide suggests that B.1.1.529 has been focused on Gauteng. These were presented today at the briefing by South Africa’s Government
The above shows the test positivity rate — the proportion of tests that picked up the virus — across Gauteng province. This shows that the north part of Gauteng is experiencing an increase in cases. The cause of this increase could be B.1.1.529.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has announced that South Africa and Namibia flights, Botswana and Eswatini, Lesotho and Zimbabwe will be grounded starting Friday at noon. The red list includes all six countries.
Yesterday, Javid announced the travel ban. He stated that the early signs of the variant are stronger than those from Delta and that the current vaccines may not be as effective.
“We have not yet detected any new variant of the virus in the UK, just to be completely clear. We have always made it clear that our actions will be taken to preserve the gains we have made.
“So, we are going to suspend all flights coming from six southern African countries from noon tomorrow and add those countries on the travel redlist.”
These countries include South Africa, Namibia and Lesotho. From Sunday at 4am, we will require anyone arriving from such countries to quarantine in hotels.
“If someone arrives after that time, they should self-isolate at their home and do a PCR test day two or eight. We ask anyone arriving from these countries in the last 10 days to do PCR testing.
Minister added that scientists were deeply concerned by this variant. “I’m worried, and that’s part of why we’ve taken this action today.
When asked what this would mean for the UK in the weeks ahead of Christmas, Javid replied: “We have plans, as everyone knows, for the spread ot the infection here in the UK, and we also have contingency plans, the so-called Plan B.
“But today’s announcement is about a variant from South Africa. It’s been detected both in South Africa, Botswana. This is all about being careful and taking actions to try and protect our borders as much as possible.
South African scientists also stated that they were concerned about the “jump in evolution” in their variant.
His statement was that further research is needed in order to determine how serious the variant is. He added: “From what we know, there are a substantial number of mutations. Perhaps twice the amount that we saw in the Delta variant.
“This would indicate that the virus may be more easily transmissible, and that current vaccines may be less effective.
While the UK has yet to give the variant the title of ‘variant in concern,’ one expert from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), stated: “This is the most dangerous variant that we’ve seen.”
There have only been 59 cases confirmed in South Africa and Hong Kong.
This variant contains over 30 mutations, which is twice the number of the Delta variant. These could make it more transmissible or evade protection from prior infection.
According to the expert who helped initiate the coronavirus lockdown, the decision not to place travel restrictions on the affected individuals was prudent.
Neil Ferguson, a member in good standing of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, stated: “The variant B.1.1.529 has an unprecedented amount of mutations at the spike protein gene. The protein that is the target for most vaccines.
“There’s a possibility that this variant might have more potential to escape previous immunity than the other variants.
It is concerning to note that South Africa appears to have seen a dramatic increase in the number of cases from this variant. It is prudent for the Government to limit travel between South Africa and South Africa.
“Nonetheless, there are not enough data to determine if B.1.1.529 may be more transmittable or resistant to vaccinations. Therefore, the evidence base for assessing the risks it presents is incomplete.
Experts from the UKHSA have been advising ministers on the issue, with a number of scientists expressing serious concern over the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.
According to one senior scientist, “One of our main concerns is that this virus spike protein is so drastically different from the virus spike in the original Wuhan strain and thus in vaccines that it is a great source of concern.”
South African officials will be able to meet experts from the World Health Organisation on Friday, in order to evaluate the current situation.
It is possible that the variant will eventually receive the moniker Nu – most of the variants are named after the Greek alphabet.
At the end of the month, the original Red List had been reduced to zero countries when seven more were removed.
No10 has left it open for the return of the traffic light system, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps stating that last month hundreds were on standby in hotel rooms to be quarantined.
UKHSA stated that it was in close contact with South Africa scientists regarding the proposed variant, but said the situation is still evolving.
Although 100 new cases have yet been confirmed, there are already three instances in existence, which suggests it’s more prevalent than is currently reported.
Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong – both of whom had links to South Africa –three have been picked up in Botswana and the remainder are in South Africa.
Scientists warned that a failure to monitor the continent could lead to an underestimation of its true population.
As her mother gives her Pfizer vaccination against COVID-19 to her baby, a little girl in Diepsloot Township, near Johannesburg, South Africa, cries.
UK experts estimate that it could take another 2-8 weeks to fully study this variant and determine whether it is vaccine-resistant or infectious.
After the first detection of this variant in neighboring Botswana in November 11, infections have risen tenfold in South Africa, from 100 per person to 1,100.
Because of South Africa’s high natural immunity, scientists from the UK government believe it is capable of infecting previously-infected patients.
35% of adult vaccine recipients have had at least one dose. Only 41% of those who are fully vaccinated have been vaccinated.
Today’s press conference was rushedly organized by the South African Government. They revealed that the variant has been located in three provinces, but they warned it is likely to be in nine.
UK experts called earlier for the reintroduction of travel restrictions in order to keep the strain from being seeded in this country and to avoid a similar situation to the one in which large quantities of Delta varieties were imported from India.
Zero-Covid scientist Professor Christina Pagel urged ministers to ‘get ahead of this right now’ by immediately’ reimposing the red travel list ‘ — which was only scrapped a few weeks ago.
Chris Snowdon, an economist normally supportive of less restrictions, called for an immediate ban on travel.
With Transport Secretary Grant Shapps stating last month that hundreds of hotels rooms are still available for quarantine, the Government is open to the possibility of bringing back traffic light travel.
MailOnline was the first to alert the public about this variant after British scientists said it contained more than 30 mutations. This is probably the most advanced version of Covid. They said it likely emerged in a long-term infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
Scientists say that South Africa is the country with the highest HIV prevalence. This has made it more difficult to fight Covid.
After weeks of decreasing deaths and hospitalisations, Britain’s Covid case numbers began to fall today. Since November 10, this was the first percentage increase below 1.
Francois Balloux from University College London is a geneticist and said that this variant could be dominant in South Africa “very quickly”.
MailOnline asked him whether it might soon be the majority in South Africa. [of cases]These are small numbers and there’s a lot uncertainty – but, I think it may become dominant quite quickly.
He stated that it was possible that the new variant of HIV was more contagious because it infected people who had previously been immune to vaccines and other infections.
However, he stated that very little information is available about the likelihood of someone who has the variant becoming seriously ill or even dying from it. Experts believe viruses usually become less dangerous over time.
Tulio De Oliveira is a Director of Covid Surveillance in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He said the variant has spread quickly in South Africa.
“It now dominates all infection in less than 2 weeks after a terrible Delta wave in South Africa.
“We believe that Gauteng has at least 95% of all cases (a minimum 1,000 per day). [are this variant].’