UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson calls emergency meeting over mutant Covid strain

LONDON — Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson began emergency talks with his government ministers Saturday, after scientists said evidence suggests that the new Covid variant was spreading more rapidly.

The U.K. had now informed the World Health Organization that it had concluded the mutant strain could spread more quickly, the chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty said in a statement on Saturday.

“As announced on Monday, the U.K. has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England’s genomic surveillance,” he said, adding that preliminary modeling data and rising cases in the country’s southeast showed “the new strain can spread more quickly.”

“We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data to improve our understanding,” he said.

However, he insisted that there was “no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is under way to confirm this.”

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His statement came less than 24 hours after Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said that viruses “naturally mutate” and a new strain could “increase transmission.”

“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,” Walport told the BBC.

Millions of people across southeast England are entering the toughest set of ‘very high alert’ coronavirus restrictions this weekend — known as ‘Tier 3’ — in order to tackle a rising number of infections.

In Tier 3, dine-in restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters are closed with increased restrictions on socializing and travel, although stores, workplaces and schools mostly stay open.

There has been mounting anxiety across as Britain — like other countries across Europe — is working to curb a second wave of Covid cases and deaths, and the government is having to defend a plan to relax contact restrictions for five days over the Christmas period in order to lift the national mood.

“The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn. It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing,” the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal said in a unique joint editorial this week.

The government was already under intense scrutiny for what many say has been a repeated mishandling of the crisis. More than 66,000 people have died — leaving the U.K. with one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world.

With fears that the relaxing of the restrictions over the holiday period could lead to a further upward spike, Johnson did not rule out the possibility of a third national lockdown for England in the new year.

He told reporters on Friday, “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.”

Reuters contributed to this report.