UK to widen COVID lockdowns as new strain from South Africa found

Health minister announces restrictions on passengers travelling from South Africa while adding new curbs across England.

Passengers wait in line at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

A new, potentially more infectious variant of the novel coronavirus has been found in the United Kingdom in cases linked to South Africa, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said while also announcing further swaths of England would be placed under its strictest COVID-19 restrictions.

South Africa’s health department said last week that a new genetic mutation of the virus had been discovered and might be responsible for a recent surge in infections there.

“Thanks to the impressive genomic capability of the South Africans, we’ve detected two cases of another new variant of coronavirus here in the UK,” Hancock told a media briefing on Wednesday.

“Both are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks.”

The United Kingdom is already trying to curb the spread of a separate mutated strain of the virus discovered in the UK which could be up to 70 percent more transmissible, with further studies being carried out.

“This new variant [from South Arica] is highly concerning, because it is yet more transmissible, and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant has been discovered in the UK,” he said.


Susan Hopkins from Public Health England said the new variant in the UK “is very different to the variant in South Africa, it’s got different mutations.”

“Both of them look like they’re more transmissible. We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we’ve been studying that with great detail with academic partners. We’re still learning about the South African variant.”

She expressed confidence that vaccines that have already been developed should be effective “because the vaccine produces a strong immune response and it’s broad and acts against lots of variation in the virus”.

Travel restrictions

Hancock announced travel restrictions on flights from South Africa as a result of the detection of the new strain.

The health minister said that all individuals in the UK who had contracted the variant originating in South Africa had been placed in quarantine, as well as their close contacts.

Moreover, Hancock said the government was also asking anyone who has been in close contact with someone who had been in South Africa in the last two weeks to quarantine.

People walk and cycle in London [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

“They must restrict all contact with any other person whatsoever,” he said.

Haru Mutasa, reporting from Johannesburg, said South Africa is averaging just under 10,000 new infections a day.

“South African officials say they alerted the UK about this new variant last week,” she said.

“They say it spreads faster and could be responsible for the second wave (South Africa) is currently experiencing. It has been identified in Kwazulu-Natal province in the eastern cape and Garden Route area, that’s the Cape Town area.”

Meanwhile, more than 50 nations have also imposed their own travel restrictions on the UK, including France.

More local curbs announced

In response to a soaring number of coronavirus cases, the UK ordered a series of restrictions across the affected areas on Saturday.

On Wednesday, Hancock announced further coronavirus-related restrictions across England, citing a surge in cases.

Hancock said from December 26, many more parts of southern England would be also be added to the highest level of social mixing restrictions, joining the 16 million already in Tier 4, while other areas across the country currently in lower tiers would also face tighter curbs.

The UK reported almost 40,000 new infections on Wednesday, with the number of recorded deaths coming in at 744, the highest figure since April.

With more than 68,000 deaths from the virus, the UK is one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe.

Hancock said there was on average 1,909 COVID hospital admissions a day, with 18,943 people currently in hospital with the coronavirus, levels not seen since the peak of the first outbreak in April.

Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from London, said questions are being asked about why the wider restrictions are not being brought in immediately.

“Surely if [people] are mixing and socialising indoors on Christmas Day [in some tiers], that increases the risk of the infection being passed on,” he said.

“So why is the UK government waiting for the day after Christmas? Those are questions that are currently being asked of the UK government, and they really haven’t offered an answer.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies