Britons were put on alert for a Christmas lockdown today as ministers and experts warned travel bans can only delay a new feared ‘super-mutant’ strain coming to the UK.
Scientists insisted people must be braced for a ‘change in restrictions’ amid growing alarm at the emergence of a ‘worst-ever’ Covid variant that could make vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective.
The government acted last night to ban arrivals from South Africa and five other countries. No cases have yet been detected in the UK, but top experts said that if the strain spreads faster and can avoid current jabs it ‘will get here’.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested that the aim of the travel restrictions is to ‘slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country’.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said more needs to be learned about the scale of the threat – already believed to have caused a jump in infections in South Africa.
Prof Finn told ITV’s Good Morning Britain he could not predict if the development would affect Christmas.
‘On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions,’ he said.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid will update MPs on the perilous situation in a Commons statement later.
The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations – the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta – suggesting it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible than any version before it.
The variant – which is likely to be named ‘Nu’ by the World Health Organization in the coming days – has caused an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa and has already spread to three countries – including Hong Kong and Botswana, where it is believed to have emerged.
In response, Mr Javid announced last night that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.
Israel was the first country to follow suit, also red-listing the six natons.
No cases have been detected in the UK so far but everyone who has returned from South Africa in the past 10 days will be contacted and asked to take a test.
At the moment, around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but it is expected this figure could increase as the festive period begins.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘If it spreads more quickly then yes it will get here, the travel ban will delay its arrival but if it spreads more quickly the lesson has surely been from all the variants we’ve seen before that it will get here eventually.
‘We shouldn’t despair, vaccines will be effective, so if you haven’t had your vaccine go and get it, be that the booster, the first dose, the second dose.
‘Secondly there are new medicines coming along… these will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation.
‘We have got much better at controlling the disease in other ways in hospital so it is bad news but it is not doomsday.’
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in South Africa. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
The above slide shows the proportion of tests that picked up a SGTF mutation, a hallmark of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading rapidly in the country. The slide was presented at a briefing today run by the South African Government
The above slide shows variants that have been detected by province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests B.1.1.529 is focused in Gauteng province. This was presented at a briefing today from the South African Government
The above shows the test positivity rate — the proportion of tests that picked up the virus — across Gauteng province. It reveals that there is an uptick of cases in the northern part of the province. It is not clear whether this could be driven by B.1.1.529
Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Shapps said the Government is taking a ‘safety-first approach’ to the new variant.
‘It is important to make sure that you do act immediately and in doing so you get to slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country,’ he told Sky News.
‘That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures – it takes several weeks to do – so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.
‘It is a safety-first approach. We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.’
The chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency said the new variant is the most ‘complex’ and ‘worrying’ seen.
Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta.
‘And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation, there’s new ones we haven’t seen before, so we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.
‘So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite its definitely the most complex variant before.’
She added: ‘It is the most worrying we’ve seen.’
Announcing the travel ban last night, Mr Javid said: ‘The early indication we have of this variant is it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it.
‘Now to be clear, we have not detected any of this new variant in the UK at this point in time. But we’ve always been clear that we will take action to protect the progress that we have made.
‘So what we will be doing is from midday tomorrow we will be suspending all flights from six, southern African countries and we will add in those countries to the travel red list.
‘Those countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. We will be requiring anyone that arrives from those countries from 4am on Sunday to quarantine in hotels.
‘If anyone arrives before then they should self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight. If anyone has arrived from any of those countries over the last 10 days, we would ask them to take PCR tests.’
The minister added: ‘Our scientists are deeply concerned about this variant. I’m concerned, of course, that’s one of the reasons we have taken this action today.’
Asked what the situation would mean for the UK over the coming weeks, with Christmas approaching, Mr Javid said: ‘We’ve got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans – the so-called Plan B.
‘But today’s announcement, this is about a new variant from South Africa – it’s been detected in South Africa and Botswana – and this is about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders.’
South African scientists, meanwhile, add that they are ‘concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant’.
He said that more work was needed to understand how concerning the variant is, adding: ‘From what we do know there’s a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant.
‘That would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective.’
The variant has not yet been given the title ‘variant of concern’ in the UK, but one senior UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert said: ‘This is the worst variant we have seen so far.’
Only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
The variant has over 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
The expert whose modelling helped instigate the first coronavirus lockdown said that the decision to impose travel restrictions was ‘prudent’.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: ‘The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.
‘There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.
‘It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa. The Government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent.
‘However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.’
Experts from the UKHSA have been advising ministers on the issue, with a number of scientists expressing serious concern over the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.
One senior scientist said: ‘One of our major worries is this virus spike protein is so dramatically different to the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, that it has a great cause of concern.’
Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.
The variant could eventually be given the moniker ‘Nu’ – with the most concerning variants given named after the Greek alphabet.
The original Red List was reduced to zero nations at the end of last month when the remaining seven countries on it were removed.
No10 had left the door open to bringing back the notorious traffic light travel system with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying last month hundreds of hotel rooms were still on standby for quarantine.
The UKHSA said it had been in extensive talks with scientists in South Africa about the new variant but the situation is ‘rapidly evolving’.
Although only 100 cases of the new variant have so far been identified, it is already in three countries, suggesting it is more widespread than the official tally.
Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong – both of whom had links to South Africa –three have been picked up in Botswana and the remainder are in South Africa.
But a lack of surveillance on continental Africa may be underestimating the true numbers there, scientists warned.
A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa
UK experts say it will be another two to eight weeks until they can study the variant in enough detail to work out how infectious or vaccine-resistant it is.
Nationally, infections in South Africa have surged tenfold from 100 per day to 1,100, after the variant was first detected in neighbouring Botswana on November 11.
UK Government scientists believe it can infect previously-infected patients with ease, because South Africa has very high levels of natural immunity.
Only 41 percent of adults have received at least a single dose of vaccine, while 35 percent are fully vaccinated.
In a hastily organised press conference today, the South African Government revealed the variant had been officially spotted in three provinces but warned it was probably already in all nine.
Experts in the UK earlier called for travel restrictions to be reimposed to prevent the strain being seeded here and avoid risking a repeat of this spring when the Delta variant was imported in huge numbers from India.
Zero-Covid scientist Professor Christina Pagel urged ministers to ‘get ahead of this right now’ by immediately’ reimposing the red travel list ‘ — which was only scrapped a few weeks ago.
And Chris Snowdon, an economist who is normally in favour of fewer restrictions, also called for an immediate travel ban.
The Government has left the door open to bringing back the notorious traffic light travel system with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying last month hundreds of hotel rooms were still on standby for quarantine.
MailOnline first sounded the alarm about the variant yesterday after British scientists warned that it had more than 30 mutations and is the most evolved version of Covid yet. They said it likely emerged in a long-term infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
The fact that South Africa has the largest number of people living HIV out of any country in the world has complicated its fight against Covid, as immuno-compromised people can harbor the virus for longer, scientists say.
It comes as Britain’s daily Covid cases began to flatline today, official data showed after weeks of falling deaths and hospitalisations. This was the first time the percentage jump was below one since November 10.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said the variant could become dominant in South Africa ‘very quickly’.
Asked whether it could soon make up the majority of cases in South Africa, he told MailOnline: ‘The numbers [of cases] are very small and there is a lot of uncertainty… but I would say it might become dominant very quickly.’
He said it was ‘plausible’ that the variant was more infectious because it was ‘better at infecting’ people that had immunity from vaccines or previous infections.
But he said very little is known about how likely someone who catches the variant would be to become seriously ill and die from the virus. Experts say viruses normally become less virulent over time.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a director of Covid surveillance in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, said that the variant had spread rapidly in South Africa.
‘In less than two weeks it now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa.
‘We estimate that 90 per cent of cases in Gauteng (at least 1,000 a day) [are this variant].’