'New variant' of coronavirus identified in UK, Hancock says

14 December 2020, 16:54 | Updated: 15 December 2020, 10:14

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A "new variant" of coronavirus has been identified in the UK which "may be associated with the faster spread in the South East", Matt Hancock has told MPs.

Health secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons on Monday the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been notified of a new strain of Covid strain which is being studied by Public Health England (PHE) at Porton Down.

In a statement to MPs, Mr Hancock revealed that the new coronavirus variant was "spreading faster" than the original.

He said: "Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the South of England."

The minister said the numbers of the new variant of coronavirus "are increasing rapidly", telling the Commons: "Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.

Matt Hancock confirmed a new strain of coronavirus had been identified
Matt Hancock confirmed a new strain of coronavirus had been identified. Picture: PA

"We've currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the South of England although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.

"And numbers are increasing rapidly."

It was also confirmed on Tuesday that the new variant has also been identified in Wales.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “It is natural for a virus to mutate over time and we have seen a range of mutations in Wales.

"In relation to this particular mutation, we have identified 10 confirmed cases and 5 probable cases through sequencing that took place during November - further sequencing is underway and we expect to identify further cases.

"Public Health Wales is actively looking for this variant and will be tracking any other Welsh cases as they emerge. Our findings will be feeding into the work being undertaken across the UK.”

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However, there have been no suggestions that the new variant causes more damage or does not respond to vaccinations.

Mr Hancock said: "I must stress 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's highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows we've got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus."

He added: "I need to tell the House that over the last week, we've seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.

"We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant but no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out.

"In some parts of these areas the doubling time is around every seven days."

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He also warned that hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent were already "under pressure".

"We know that this doubling of cases will be mirrored in hospital admissions and it only takes a few doublings for the NHS to be overwhelmed."

However, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling Group, Dr Michael Tildesley, told LBC that "we shouldn't panic" about the new variant.

"It's not that surprising, we do get these new variants emerging all the time," Dr Tildesley said, "this is what happens with viruses, you get slight mutations.

"This does not necessarily mean the vaccine won't work against this new strain, or even that it's going to be more deadly than the new strain that has been circulating prior to that."

He continued: "What it does mean is we do need to be careful and it really sends that message home that particularly when we start to vaccinate individuals...that's where we may see mutations to different forms."

Dr Tildesley told Eddie Mair that the announcement is a reminder that the public must continue to take the necessary precautions.

He added that the UK is probably going to be living with Covid for "some time to come".

It comes as the MP confirmed that London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will move into Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday morning.

The Tier 3 announcement for the city comes after data revealed the number of new coronavirus cases rose in every single London borough in the week to 10 December.

Mr Hancock confirmed the news to MPs ahead of a statement to the Commons on Monday afternoon.

London will be joined by parts of Essex and Hertfordshire from one minute past midnight on Wednesday morning in facing the toughest Covid restrictions.

The health secretary told MPs the government needed to act fast and could not wait until the middle of the week, when a review was planned, to make a decision.

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