Fears new Covid-19 strain spreading quickly as South East could face tougher travel rules

19 December 2020, 01:02 | Updated: 19 December 2020, 01:05

There are fears a new Covid-19 could be spreading rapidly
There are fears a new Covid-19 could be spreading rapidly. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

There are fears a new Covid-19 strain is spreading quickly across the South East of England which could result in new travel rules being imposed in just days.

Details about the newly-discovered variant are not yet known but reports suggest it is spreading more rapidly than previous variants - prompting concerns that it could spread to more regions in England and elsewhere and overwhelm hospitals.

Boris Johnson was reported to have held an unscheduled meeting of ministers on Friday amid "growing concern" about the threat posed by the mutant strain.

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On Friday night it was reported that some hospitals in Kent were completely full - just hours after postponing all non-urgent procedures.

Several other NHS trusts have announced similar measures throughout the week as they face rapidly growing numbers of Covid-19 patients.

Boris Johnson 'hopes to avoid' third lockdown but doesn't rule it out

The meeting comes as large parts of the region were following London and large parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, which entered the toughest Tier 3 restrictions earlier this week.

Downing Street would not comment on reports that among the measures being considered by ministers were new travel restrictions for the South East of England.

Reports suggest that a ban on travelling outside the region could be possible in the coming days.

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Asked about reports the new strain was spreading rapidly across the South East, Sage scientist Professor Sir Mark Walport warned there was a real possibility it could have a "transmission advantage" over other discovered variants.

"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 got a transmission advantage," he said on Friday.

"Scientists are working extremely hard to work out what is going on. But it does definitely seem possible that this transmits more easily.

"It will make the social-distancing even more critical."

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Meanwhile, latest figures from Sage showed the reproduction number - the R rate - in the UK is estimated to have risen to between 1.1 and 1.2 - meaning the spread of the disease is accelerating.

There are fears that the relaxing restrictions over Christmas could lead to a further upward spike and risk overwhelming hospitals.

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Mr Johnson on Friday refused to rule out the possibility of a third national lockdown for England in the new year - but insisted the Christmas rules would stay.

"We're hoping very much that we will be able to avoid anything like that. But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks," he told reporters during a visit to Bolton.