A new variant of the novel coronavirus has been identified in the United Kingdom that could be partly linked to a rapid rise in infections, the government has said, as authorities placed London and its surrounding areas under the country’s highest level of COVID-19 restrictions.
Although there was currently nothing to suggest the new strain was likely to cause more serious disease or that it would not respond to a vaccine, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday it could be contributing to higher infection rates.
“Over the last week, we’ve seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire,” he told the House of Commons in a statement, referring to counties near the capital.
“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,” he said, announcing that the entire capital and some neighbouring areas would go into “Tier 3” restrictions from Wednesday.
More than 1,000 infections with the new variant have been detected.
Michael Ryan, the chief of emergencies for the World Health Organization (WHO), said the global health agency was aware of the new strain reported in the UK and was working with British and other health authorities to assess if the reported mutations might change how the virus is behaving.
“This kind of evolution and mutations like this are quite common,” Ryan told reporters on Monday, adding there was “no information that suggests” this virus variant is more deadly or spreads more easily between people.
Viruses like the SARS-COV-2 one that causes COVID-19 to mutate constantly as they spread between people and scientists say most mutations have little effect on human disease.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said the agency had “no evidence this variant behaves differently” and that it was similar to a variant initially reported among mink in Europe.
She said scientists would further study the new variant to see if there might be any difference in how it prompted an immune response in people.
The UK started vaccinating people over 80 and healthcare workers on December 8 with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and its regulators are also evaluating other vaccines, including one developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Thousands have been vaccinated so far but they must return in 21 days for a second shot.
The National Health Service said hundreds of medical clinics across England were getting vaccine deliveries on Monday and would be offering shots by Tuesday.
On Sunday, Italy surpassed the UK to become the nation with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus deaths in Europe, but both have more than 64,000 deaths each, according to Johns Hopkins University. Experts say those tallies still undercount the effect of the virus, due to limited testing and missed cases. To date, the UK has confirmed almost 1.9 million coronavirus infections.
London is currently in Tier 2, which applies to most of England.
In November, the capital was among the areas with the lowest regional infection rates in England but some areas in and around London have now become virus hotspots.
Under Tier 3 restrictions, the toughest level in England’s three-tier system, people cannot socialise indoors, and bars, pubs and restaurants must close except for takeout.
People are told to minimise travelling within or to the area, and Hancock said people should not take trips into central London to do Christmas shopping.
Local officials in some of London’s boroughs had already advised schools to close and move to online learning as coronavirus cases spiked.
On Sunday, officials in southeast London’s Greenwich said the borough was experiencing “exponential growth” in cases, with infection rates now at their highest since March.
London Mayor Sadiq Kahn has suggested the Conservative government ask all secondary schools and colleges in London to shut down early before Christmas because of outbreaks among students from 10 to 19 years old.