Sir Patrick told a Downing Street briefing on coronavirus: ‘The evidence on this virus is it spreads easily, it’s more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place’
Millions more Brits will be plunged into Tier Four restrictions within weeks, Sir Patrick Vallance hinted tonight as he claimed the mutated coronavirus strain which spooked No10 into effectively cancelling Christmas and left the UK the pariah of Europe has reached every corner of the home nations.
In a clear sign that the toughest virus-controlling restrictions are imminent for swathes of the population, Downing Street’s chief scientific adviser said the fast-spreading variant is ‘everywhere’ and admitted that we ‘can’t stop this getting into other places’.
Sir Patrick told a Downing Street briefing on coronavirus: ‘The evidence on this virus is it spreads easily, it’s more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.
‘I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it’s likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced. I think it is the case that this will spread more.’
Boris Johnson sparked fury on Saturday night after he cancelled Christmas for 16million people living in London and across the South East by imposing Tier Four restrictions, which effectively ban residents from leaving home and order shops, gyms and hairdressers to shut again.
Fears are growing that that millions of families face living under draconian curbs until Easter, with Britain’s Covid crisis continuing to escalate. Health bosses declared another 33,364 cases today, up 64.7 per cent from last Monday’s figure. Another 215 deaths were confirmed.
Matt Hancock yesterday hinted tougher measures will be needed after Christmas, saying the virus was now ‘out of control’. And ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson today claimed the harshest curbs may ‘possibly’ be needed until the spring, when millions of Britons will have finally been vaccinated.
It comes amid fears parts of Sussex, Hampshire and Oxfordshire could be next to be hit with Tier Four restrictions.
Crawley in Sussex – which remains in Tier Two despite ministers imposing the toughest measures on two fellow boroughs within the county – has seen cases rise almost five-fold since the start of December. Eden in Cumbria also had a rapid increase in cases, as well as Rushmoor – a borough of Hampshire on the border with locked-down Surrey.
In the same press conference tonight, the Prime Minister blustered his way through without giving a single answer about when UK lorries will finally be allowed into France again after Emmanuel Macron imposed a last-ditch travel bans because of fears over the mutated coronavirus strain spreading. And Mr Johnson also revealed that 500,000 Britons have now been vaccinated against Covid, telling the nation it can ‘look forward to a very different world from Easter’.
Crawley in Sussex saw cases rise almost five-fold since the beginning of the month, with the borough’s infection rate soaring from 40.9 positive tests per 100,000 people in the week ending December 1 to 200.2 over the seven-day spell that finished December 15
In other coronavirus developments today:
Revealed: The areas that saw the biggest DROP in coronavirus cases
Blackburn w Darwen
Department of Health data on infection rates in the week ending December 1, compared to the week ending December 15.
- Britons could be facing a shortage of food over the festive period with the port chaos caused by France’s Covid travel ban set to last until Christmas Eve and Emmanuel Macron insisting lorry drivers must register a negative Covid test before being allowed into the country;
- Number 10 has called for calm as panic-buyers continue to queue outside supermarkets across the country – but Sainsbury’s has reassured customers that all the ingredients needed for a traditional Christmas dinner are already in the country;
- Boris Johnson is facing a mounting Tory rebellion over his latest Covid crackdown as Conservative MPs demand the Government recall Parliament so ministers can ‘come clean’ over the new mutant strain of the disease, which a top German virologist claimed he was ‘not so worried’ about;
- Chaos erupted at British airports, with more than 30,000 travellers stranded and hundreds of flights cancelled as more countries moved to isolate the UK in a desperate bid to contain the mutated strain of coronavirus;
- The mutated coronavirus spreading rapidly in the UK will likely become the dominant global strain, a SAGE scientist warned today as Gibraltar became the fifth place outside of Britain to confirm a case of the new variant;
- The FTSE 100 plunged further into the red, losing more than £45billion in value as panicked investors reacted to the devastating economic threat of a toughened lockdown, the new coronavirus strain and the continued Brexit deadlock;
- The temporary purpose-built NHS Nightingale hospitals constructed for £220million to help fight the coronavirus pandemic cannot open because there are not enough staff to adequately service them, doctors have warned.
In the same televised press conference tonight, Sir Patrick said there will be a spike in Covid cases after an ‘inevitable period of mixing’ over Christmas.
He said: ‘Nervtag (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Group) met again today, a lot of work was done over the weekend trying to bring in more groups to look at the problem and to look at the new data that’s become available.
‘That reinforced the view from Friday that this is transmitting more readily, that it doesn’t – as far as we can see – alter the course of the disease, and the work, as I said, in terms of the immune response is ongoing but there’s no reason to suspect at the moment that there’s a change there.
‘Those data will come out and Nervtag minutes will be published but the conclusion was that the experts have high confidence in the fact that this is transmitting more readily.
Britain has vaccinated more than 500,000 people against Covid, Boris Johnson reveals
The NHS has vaccinated 500,000 people against Covid-19 since the programme started on December 8, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today.
Speaking in a news conference from Downing Street Mr Johnson said: ‘I can today announce that over half a million people, more than 500,000 people in the UK, have now received their first dose.’
The Department of Health is expected to start publishing detailed statistics this week to reveal the ages and locations of people who are being given the vaccine.
And the PM said there were no plans to direct more vaccines to London and the South East because coronavirus is spreading faster there, insisting that officials would stick with the original plan of prioritising people by age.
It comes amid mounting pressure for Britain’s regulator to approve Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine to stop the spiralling outbreak that has wrecked Christmas for millions.
Oxford and AstraZeneca’s jab may now be the UK’s last hope for lifting lockdown rules before spring 2021 because the country can’t get enough doses of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s – which won’t come until March – to protect all vulnerable people.
The MHRA drugs regulator has been doing its final review of the vaccine for three weeks now, since November 27, with a decision expected by next Tuesday.
Scientists and politicians are calling for it to be green-lighted as soon as possible so it can be rushed out to stop the devastating epidemic.
‘That again reinforces the point that it’s important to get ahead of this and to make sure that the tiering system is adequate to stop things going, and not to watch it and react in retrospect.
‘Given that we’re entering a period of inevitable mixing, I think there will be some increases in numbers over the next few weeks.’
And in an attempt to dismiss fears over the Covid mutation, he said there is no reason to think the new variant is more dangerous than the existing strain.
He told the Downing Street press conference: ‘Evidence that this can transmit more readily is becoming clear in terms of the data of the rapid spread of this virus across areas.
‘The transmission is increased, but we can’t say exactly by how much, but it is clearly substantially increased, so it is more transmissible, which is why we see it growing so fast and spreading to so many areas.
‘There is no evidence that the disease course is any different, so if you catch it the disease looks the same as any other form of Covid infection.
‘In terms of the immune response, there is nothing to suggest that this won’t have the same susceptibility to antibody attack from vaccine or pre-existing infection as any other form.
‘At the moment, the vaccine looks as though it should be as effective and that’s obviously being looked at.’
It comes after MailOnline’s analysis of Department of Health data, which is updated every day, showed the 20 areas of England with the highest infection rates are all currently under Tier Four.
Thurrock in Essex is currently the nation’s Covid hotspot, recording 968.2 cases for every 100,000 people in the week ending December 15 – the most up-to-date set of figures.
The borough, home to 175,000 people, overtook Medway in Kent (931.9) to clinch the grim accolade. Basildon in Essex (931.1), Havering in London (925.4) and Swale in Kent (879.5) round up the top five.
But there is a huge disparity in Covid case rates between Tier Four boroughs, with Gosport in Hampshire getting lumped into the harshest bracket despite recording just 159.1 positive tests per 100,000 people last week.
Lincoln’s rate (429) is almost three times’ higher than Gosport’s, despite only currently being in Tier Three. Boston (419), Burnley (372.2), Stoke-on-Trent (351.4) and East Staffordshire (340.7) are all also in the same boat.
Italy has detected a patient infected with the mutated strain of coronavirus that emerged in Britain, becoming the fifth country outside the UK to report a case after the variant first emerged in Kent in September
SAGE expert warns new mutant Covid will likely become the ‘dominant global strain’
The mutated coronavirus spreading rapidly in the UK will likely become the dominant global strain, a SAGE scientist warned today as Gibraltar became the sixth place outside of Britain to detect a case of the new variant.
Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, said the new variant would ‘out-compete all the other strains’ because it has the evolutionary advantage of being able to spread more easily.
The strain – called VUI-202012/01 – has already been confirmed in Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy, There have also been unverified reports of at least one case in Belgium.
France, and South Africa also believe they have cases of the mutation, but these have not been confirmed. French health minister Olivier Veran said it is ‘entirely possible’ the new variant is already circulating in France, despite tests not picking it up yet, while officials in South Africa say they’ve detected a strain very similar to the UK version.
Scotland and Wales have both picked up cases of the strain in recent weeks, although it is spreading predominantly in London and the South East of England, where it’s thought to account for 60 per cent of all new infections.
It is now present in all parts of the UK apart from Northern Ireland, but First Minister Arlene Foster said it’s ‘probable’ the virus is already circulating there, too.
When asked on Sky News whether the mutant coronavirus will become the dominant strain around the world, Professor Semple said: ‘I suspect it will, or strains like it will.
‘Because the virus has the evolutionary advantage in transmitting more quickly, it will out-compete all the other strains, and so it will naturally do that.
‘As immunity comes into the community more widely, then you’ll start to see more pressure on the virus and you’re more likely to see other escapes of other variations.’
However, the Joint Biosecurity Centre – the secretive Whitehall body which decides the local lockdowns – doesn’t just look at infection rates in deploying its whack-a-mole approach.
The body, which is run out of the Cabinet Office, also looks at how quickly cases are rising among over-60s, test positivity rates, and pressure on local NHS hospitals, before changing up the tier system.
The JBC’s next review of the four-tier lockdown system is due on December 30 but any decision could be rushed through in an emergency, as was the case for upgrading London into Tier Three.
As well as the other criteria, officials also look at the speed at which Covid cases are rising or falling to decide on which tier each local authority in England needs to be in.
Crawley in Sussex saw cases rise almost five-fold since the beginning of the month, with the borough’s infection rate soaring from 40.9 positive tests per 100,000 people in the week ending December 1 to 200.2 over the seven-day spell that finished December 15.
Only Hastings in Kent, and the Essex boroughs of Rochford and Braintree – all of which were plunged into Tier Four after the Prime Minister hit the panic button on Saturday night – saw their Covid outbreaks grow quicker over the same time frame.
MailOnline’s analysis shows only 46 areas saw outbreaks shrink over the last fortnight, with Copeland in Cumbria having the lowest Covid infection rate and the biggest drop in confirmed cases. But the borough, home to around 70,000 people, still finds itself in Tier Two.
Gosport also saw a 5.6 per cent drop in coronavirus cases between the weeks ending December 1 and 15, despite being lumped into Tier Four.
Nine of the ten areas that saw the biggest drops in infection rates over the same two-week period are in Tier Three, including North East Lincolnshire, Calderdale, North Tyneside, Darlington and East Lindsey.
It comes as it was suggested today that millions of families face living under draconian Tier Four restrictions until Easter.
‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College London epidemiologist who quit his role as a Government adviser after breaking rules to see his married lover, today claimed the harshest curbs could ‘possibly’ have to stay until the spring and admitted Britain was now in a race to vaccinate people.
He warned Britain’s situation was ‘not looking optimistic right now’.
It comes after Matt Hancock yesterday warned the Tier Four restrictions could be extended nationwide, after the Health Secretary said the virus was now ‘out of control’ following the emergence of a fast-spreading new variant.
In his embarrassing U-turn on the festive period, the Prime Minister – who last week claimed it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas – also slashed a festive amnesty from five days to just one for the rest of the UK.
It comes after it was revealed yesterday that Professor Ferguson played a major role in researching the variant that triggered the dramatic cancellation of Christmas. He was among those attending a meeting of Nervtag – the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – to discuss the new mutant strain on Friday.
Long queues outside the Asda at Clapham Junction in South West London as people try to get Christmas shopping
Crowds of shoppers were seen in a Tesco Extra store in south east London today as people flocked to supermarkets days before Christmas
The shelves were emotied of fresh stock as large numbers of shoppers descended on supermarkets this morning amid news of a French travel ban. The Port of Dover has confirmed lorries carrying essential items are now inbound from France
Heathrow Airport’s terminal 2 was very busy this morning, with passengers queuing to get out of the UK
Travellers, one dressed in a Father Christmas outfit and all wearing face coverings, queue with their luggage in the departures hall at Terminal 2 of Heathrow Airport in west London
Which countries have banned flights from the UK?
France imposed an inbound travel ban from 11pm last night
Spain will ban all entries from the UK except for Spanish nationals and residents from tomorrow
Germany, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Romania, Malta, Croatia, all suspended flights from the UK
Italy blocked all flights from the UK until 6 January
Bulgaria suspending flights from the UK until 31 January
Netherlands banned all passenger flights from the UK until 1 January
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia banned flights from the UK until 31 January
Denmark suspended all flights from Britain for 48 hours as of this morning
Norway stopped planes from the UK for two days
Belgium halted flights and trains from the UK from midnight for at least 24 hours
Greece extended its quarantine period for travellers from the UK from three days to seven
Portugal says only Portuguese people and residents can arrive from the UK
In the Republic of Ireland, flights arriving from Britain are banned for 48 hours at least from midnight on Sunday and people have been asked not to ‘travel to Ireland, by air or sea’.
Turkey has temporarily banned all flights from the UK
Canada suspended entry of all flights from the UK for 72 hours
Russia is suspending flights from the UK for one week
India is suspending flights from the UK from midnight on Tuesday until 31 December
Hong Kong, Israel, Iran, Croatia, Morocco and Kuwait brought in restrictions on UK travel
In Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru all banned flights from the UK
Saudi Arabia has suspended all international flights for one week while Jordan suspended flights from the UK for two weeks
Czech Republic says arrivals who have spent at least 24 hours in UK territory will need to isolate
The Imperial expert said it was now a simple race to ‘get vaccines in people’s arms’ because the virus couldn’t be stopped any other way.
And a colleague of his, infectious diseases expert Professor Wendy Barclay, said it was possible that if the virus mutates enough the immunity produced by vaccines might not work, although there is no proof that this is true of the new strain.
Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine is being rolled out rapidly but it is complicated because it must be kept in specialist freezers.
Regulators now face pressure to approve England’s own vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca – a decision is expected within the next week.
Another completed vaccine by US company Moderna, which trials showed was 94.5 per cent effective, has been pre-ordered by the UK but won’t be available until the spring.
Dozens of countries have all already banned travel from Britain over fears the mutated strain of coronavirus could spread, with France last night causing chaos over the last minute decision to shut the border.
Mr Johnson will hold crisis talks with Ministers today as he chairs the Government’s Cobra committee amid warnings of ‘significant disruption’ around the Channel ports in Kent.
It comes as there was chaos at airports across Britain today with more than 30,000 travellers stranded and hundreds of flights cancelled as more countries move to isolate the UK in a bid to contain a mutant strain of coronavirus.
A growing number of countries are banning flights from the UK in a bid to stop the new Covid variant crossing their borders, sparking panic at terminals across the continent.
The move has led to queues of people anxiously waiting for Covid tests at Heathrow Airport in west London where more than 80 departures have been grounded so far today – more than half of which are on British Airways – with that number continually rising as more countries ban incoming flights.
At least 200 flights to Europe have been cancelled, with the routes affected including Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Geneva and Paris and long-haul flights to Russia and India.
A spokesman for Heathrow told Mailonline that only passengers with a ticket to a destination that has not yet banned UK arrivals will be allowed in the airport.
The spokesman added: ‘If you don’t have a ticket, or are travelling to a country with an active ban in place, do not come to the airport. We do not want the airport flooded or similar scenes that were seen at St Pancras on Saturday night.’
Heathrow is not testing people arriving in the UK from other countries – because the government has not yet made it a policy.
The spokesman added: ‘We’ve been pushing for testing since April but still don’t have the go-ahead from the government. As soon as they’re ready to catch up, we are ready to go.’
But Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister confirmed the Department of Transport is looking at organising a limited number of flights today and tomorrow to accommodate those who need to return to Ireland for Christmas.
The news will come as a shot in the arm to Irish residents left stranded in the UK, after the Irish Government issued a 48 hour travel ban on anyone entering the country from the UK.
QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON NEW COVID MUTATION: HOW DID IT HAPPEN, IS IT MORE DANGEROUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN IN THE UK?
By David Churchill
What has happened to the coronavirus to trigger such concern?
A new strain of Covid has developed which is said to spread far faster. A ‘strain’ is a new version of a virus which has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19.
It has been named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for ‘variant under investigation’ and the month, December 2020.
What makes it so worrying?
This particular variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It is the combination of some of these changes which scientists believe could make it more infectious.
It is thought they could help the virus’ spike protein latch on to human cells and gain entry more easily.
Is it certain the new variation is accelerating the spread of the virus?
No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it does.
Boris Johnson said it may spread up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains of the virus, potentially driving up the ‘R rate’ – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.
On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could drive up the ‘R rate’ by as much as 0.4.
This would be particularly significant in areas such as Eastern England, where it is 1.4, and both London and the South East, where it is 1.3. The ‘R rate’ must remain below 1 for infections to decrease.
Is the new variant more dangerous?
Scientists don’t think so for now. When asked on Saturday night if it was more lethal than the previous strain, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said ‘the answer seems to be ‘No’, as far as we can tell at the moment’.
Yesterday Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads inside them.
But she said this did not mean people would get more ill.
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.’
If it does make the virus harder to control and hospitals become overrun, it could pose new challenges.
Are mutations unusual?
No. Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been observed in other countries, such as Spain.
However, one scientific paper suggests the number and combination of changes which have occurred in this new variant is potentially ‘unprecedented’.
Most mutations observed to date are thought to have happened more slowly. Also, most changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads.
There are already about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.
What has caused the mutation?
This is still being investigated. One theory is that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.
Another theory is that it has developed in chronically ill patients who have fought the virus off over a long period of time, with it then being passed onto others.
Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, yesterday said it was ‘plausible’ and ‘highly likely’ this has happened.
However, he stressed it is impossible to prove at the moment.
What evidence is there to support the latter theory?
Some evidence supporting it was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.
It is possible the virus mutated during that treatment, developing more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it’s also possible the mutation has occurred elsewhere.
A paper co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: ‘If antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population may be unusually large and genetically diverse…creating suitable circumstances for the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes.’
Professor Hunter added: ‘Mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.’
What do these mutations do?
Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the virus’ spike protein. This helps the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.
It is also possible the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help fight off infection.
Who detected it?
It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which carries out random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples.
It is a consortium of the UK’s four public health agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.
How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?
As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be higher.
They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London. It may now account for 60 per cent of the capital’s cases.
But it has been detected elsewhere, including in Wales and Scotland.
The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.
Why was action to tackle it not taken sooner?
Because the potentially greater transmissibility was only discovered late last week by academics.
Has it been detected anywhere else in the world?
One aspect of the new variant, known as a N501Y mutation, was circulating in Australia between June and July, in America in July and in Brazil as far back as April, according to scientists.
It is therefore unclear what role, if any, travellers carrying the virus may have had.
Dr Julian Tang, a Virologist and expert in Respiratory science at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Whether or not these viruses were brought to the UK and Europe later by travellers or arose spontaneously in multiple locations around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires further investigation.’
Another change, known as the D614G variant, has previously been detected in western Europe and North America. But it is possible that the new variant evolved in the UK.
What can I do to avoid getting the new variant?
The same as always – keeping your distance from people, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and abiding by the tier restrictions in your area.
Yesterday Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: ‘The way in which you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. It is about continuing stringent measures. The same rules apply.’
Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?
More studies are needed.
Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that until these are carried out scientists cannot be certain whether – and by how much – the new variant reduces the effectiveness of developed vaccines.
She said: ‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’ When mutations happen it is, in theory, possible the antibodies generated by vaccines can be evaded.
But vaccines produce a wide range of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus from different angles, making it hard for it to evade all of them at once.
Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation does prove to be more resistant to them.
So what are the scientists doing now?
Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.
It could take up to two weeks for this process to be complete.