Mutated coronavirus strain leads many European countries to ban travel from UK
The UK’s Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock has suggested parts of England could remain under tough tier 4 coronavirus restrictions for months as the government admitted a new strain of the disease was now out of control.
Hours after Boris Johnson cancelled the Christmas plans of millions of people, the number of daily recorded infections in the UK reached an all-time high of 35,928.
As scientists warned the new variant could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original virus, Mr Hancock also refused to rule out another round of school closures, although he said that was not currently the plan.
The news of a new, highly infectious strain caused panic among Britain’s neighbours, leading countries including France, Germany, Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium closed their borders to travellers arriving from the UK.
After France’s decision to shut its border to passengers travelling from the UK, the port of Dover announced on Sunday evening that it was stopping outbound departures until further notice. Eurostar said it would only operate services into Britain.
The government was left scrambling to address a potential freight crisis. Responding to the upheaval, a Number 10 spokesperson said: “The prime minister will chair a Cobra meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK. Further meetings are happening this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure robust plans are in place.”
Due to the new mutation of the disease, large swathes of southeast England and London were placed under a new, tougher, Tier 4 system of controls on Sunday.
Mr Hancock warned that the strict measures were needed to fight the new mutation of the disease and suggested that they could have to remain in force until a significant proportion of the population had been vaccinated.
The health secretary told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “We know with this new variant you can catch it more easily from a small amount of the virus being present.
“We know that because we know that in November that in the areas where this new variant started, in Kent, the cases carried on rising whereas in the rest of the country the November lockdown worked very effectively.
“It is 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.”
Later, during an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Hancock described the new strain as “out of control”.
Scientists have warned the government that the new variant could increase the R rate, the speed at which the virus spreads, by up to 0.9 per cent. Experts warn the rate must be kept below 1 to ensure the virus is under control.
Ministers were warned of how contagious the new strain of the disease was on Friday.
By late on Saturday afternoon the prime minister had issued stay-at-home orders to millions and cancelled plans to allow others to spend up to five days together in a Christmas “bubble”.
But Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of doctors’ leaders group the British Medical Association, accused ministers of failing to follow the science even before the new data emerged, warning that case numbers were already on the rise.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also criticised Mr Johnson, accusing him of “indecision and weak leadership that is costing lives and it is costing jobs”.