Matt Hancock warns coronavirus is 'out of control'

The worst Noël… and the agony is set to last for months: Matt Hancock issues grim warning on lockdown that’s hit 16m and could spread further across the country as Boris prepares to lead another Cobra meeting tomorrow

  • Matt Hancock has warned Tier Four restrictions could be extended across the UK
  • New variant of virus is ‘out of control’ and could cause months of restrictions
  • Health officials recorded 35,928 positive cases and another 326 deaths today

Millions of families face living under Tier Four restrictions for months, Matt Hancock has warned.

Warning that the draconian lockdown could be extended nationwide, the Health Secretary said coronavirus was now ‘out of control’ following the emergence of a fast-spreading new variant.

Boris Johnson imposed a tough new round of restrictions on London and much of the South East on Saturday, effectively plunging more than 16million people into lockdown.

Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons have been ordered to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four.

In his embarrassing U-turn, the Prime Minister also slashed a Christmas amnesty from five days to just one and cancelled get-togethers completely in Tier Four. Three days earlier he had said it would be ‘inhuman’ to do so.

Mr Hancock acknowledged yesterday that many were angry with the Government for forcing families to cancel their Christmas plans.

But he said the new variant posed ‘an enormous challenge, until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months’.

Warning that the draconian lockdown could be extended nationwide, the Health Secretary said coronavirus was now ‘out of control’ following the emergence of a fast-spreading new variant

Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons have been ordered to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four. Pictured: A deserted Regent Street in central London today after restrictions came into place overnight

Tube stations and high streets were equally deserted today as London went into its first day of Tier 4 lockdown, with limits on travel outside the area and almost no shops allowed to remain open. Pictured: A lone passenger on the Bakerloo line

The Health Secretary suggested other parts of the country would also be plunged into Tier Four if a significant number of cases of the mutant virus emerged.

One senior Conservative MP called for Mr Hancock to resign over the shambolic handling of the Christmas rules.

And furious Tories demanded a recall of Parliament to debate and vote on the changes to pandemic laws, which were made unilaterally by Mr Hancock in the early hours of yesterday.

Covid cases hit a daily record of 35,928 yesterday – almost double the previous week. There were also 326 deaths, up from 144 a week earlier. As the case rate in London reached 468 per 100,000, three times the level in the North West:

  • Germany, France, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria suspended travel from Britain, trying to protect themselves from the new strain;
  • France also banned British freight lorries, adding to the chaos at Channel ports;
  • Mr Hancock refused to rule out the closure of schools, which are already facing delays to next term;
  • Tory sources confirmed Tier Four travel curbs mean the Prime Minister will spend Christmas in Downing Street, rather than his country retreat Chequers;
  • In a rare bright spot, the number vaccinated hit around 500,000 last night;
  • Officials voiced hopes that the Oxford jab could be approved this week;
  • Mr Hancock condemned ‘totally irresponsible’ travellers who piled on to trains out of London on Saturday night before Tier Four came in;
  • British Transport Police stepped up patrols to stop residents leaving London and South East;
  • Scottish police doubled patrols along the border after Nicola Sturgeon imposed a ban on arrivals from England;
  • Business leaders called for more support, amid warnings that tens of thousands of jobs could go;
  • Lockdown-busting scientist Neil Ferguson has been quietly reinstated as a Government adviser and was involved in the Christmas shutdown decision;
  • A YouGov poll found 67 per cent back the Christmas curbs but 61 per cent think the Government has handled the situation badly;
  • Labour’s Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to apologise for ‘indecision and weak leadership’ over Christmas rules;
  • Wales went into lockdown for the third time, meaning 21million UK residents are now under the toughest restrictions.


Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons have been ordered to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four

Mr Hancock yesterday said a third national lockdown was ‘not inevitable’.

But a Government source said ministers would not hesitate to extend Tier Four if necessary. ‘We need to see what the impact of Tier Four is,’ the source said.

‘The new strain is pretty widespread in London and the South East, which is very worrying, but in other parts of the country the tier system is still working. ‘If it is contained within London and the South East, that’s one thing.

‘But if people are leaving that region and potentially spreading it to the rest of the country then that is a big problem. Another lockdown is not out of the question.’

In a bid to head off a Tory mutiny, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove held seminars for MPs on the mutant Covid strain by video link.

But former chief whip Mark Harper led the demands for parliament to be recalled.

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories, accused ministers of delaying the decision to cancel Christmas until MPs had left for the festive break.

He called on Mr Hancock to consider resigning, telling BBC Radio 4: ‘The Government, in my view, knew on Thursday, possibly even Wednesday, that they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited till Parliament had gone.

Health officials across the UK recorded 35,928 positive cases – a new record figure – and another 326 deaths today

‘That, on top of everything else, is a resigning matter. I am not asking for the Government to collapse. I am asking for a secretary of state to take some responsibility.’

A string of his colleagues joined calls for Parliament to be recalled.

But Mr Hancock said the need to act fast had made it impossible to consult. He said there would be a retrospective vote next month.

The Government last night published minutes from Friday’s meeting of the Nervtag scientific group, whose findings persuaded the PM to lock down a third of the nation and scrap Christmas plans he had amended only two days earlier.

The committee, whose members include Professor Ferguson, warned the new strain spreads 71 per cent faster than standard Covid. It may also raise the R-rate.


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.


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