London, Dec 14 (efe-epa).- A new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the potentially fatal respiratory disease Covid-19, has been identified in the United Kingdom, the British health secretary said Monday.
Matt Hancock made that announcement during an appearance at the House of Commons.
“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 southeast of England,” the health secretary said.
“Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We’ve currently identified over a thousand 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. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the past few months.”
Hancock also said that a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in London, as well as in certain parts of the counties of Essex (eastern England) and Hertfordshire (north of the capital), has made it necessary for those areas to be placed under the strictest tier of restrictions starting at midnight Tuesday, when bars and restaurants will only be allowed to serve takeaway orders.
It remains unclear to what extent the newly identified mutation of the virus has contributed to the spike in cases across all age groups, but Hancock said the situation requires rapid and decisive action.
He said British authorities have already notified the World Health Organization about the new variant but also issued an appeal for calm about this latest development.
“There is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease,” he said. “And the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.”
The government’s decision to place London under Tier 3 restrictions (the highest level of risk) comes less than two weeks after a second nationwide lockdown was lifted on Dec. 2.
Under Tier 3 rules, people are not permitted to have indoor social gatherings with individuals outside their household or support bubble (close support network between a single-adult household and one other household of any size).
Groups of more than six people are only allowed in outdoor public places such as parks.
Restaurants and pubs in Tier 3 areas are only allowed to offer takeaway service.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan also has called on the British government to immediately close the capital’s secondary schools and colleges early prior to the holidays, saying Covid-19 has spread rapidly among students aged 10 to 19 at those institutions.
The UK has had nearly 1.9 million confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, while more than 64,000 deaths thus far have been attributed to Covid-19. EFE-EPA