Department of Health data shows daily Covid infections have doubled week-on-week because of rapidly growing clusters across London, the South East and East. No10’s top scientific advisers blame the spread on a mutated form thought to be up to 70 per cent more infectious.
Deaths have also started to soar in line with the spike in cases in the three badly-hit regions, which were forced into draconian Tier Four restrictions in a last-ditch attempt to strangle their outbreaks. Officials recorded another 691 victims today, the highest daily toll since November 25 and up on the 506 recorded last Tuesday.
But fatalities – which lag behind infections because it can take infected patients several weeks to succumb to the illness – are expected to continue to spike in the coming weeks as a result of the rising number of cases, before tailing off as a result of the Tier Four curbs.
It comes as Cambridge University experts behind a string of dire coronavirus projections warned that England was on track for 900 deaths a day before the Tier Four restrictions – which cancelled Christmas for 16million people – were imposed.
The academics, who were behind the same gloomy warning of 4,000 daily deaths that spooked Number 10 into England’s November shutdown, estimated the nation was hurtling towards fatality tolls seen during the darkest days of the first wave in April.
But the team admit the stark claim was made without accounting for Downing St’s decision to plunge a quarter of the country into the toughest virus-controlling curbs, meaning their dramatic estimate – which gets revised every fortnight – is likely to be drastically toned down when the effects of the restrictions kick in.
England was last night put on notice for a New Year lockdown after the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned it was likely whack-a-mole measures would ‘need to be increased’ outside of London and the South East because the mutated variant of Covid was already ‘everywhere’.
Cambridge University scientists have warned that England faced up to 900 daily Covid deaths by New Year’s Day without the introduction of Tier Four restrictions (left). The academics, who were behind the same gloomy warning of 4,000 fatalities a day that spooked ministers into imposing England’s November shutdown, estimate daily cases across the nation have risen 55 per cent to 91,000 because of spiralling outbreaks in London and the South East (right). The red dots on the graph on the left are actual deaths, while the red vertical line is December 19 – when Tier Four restrictions came into place. The blue vertical lines represent March 23 – when the first national lockdown was enforced – and May 11, when some curbs were eased
Separate data today revealed Covid deaths fell by 3 per cent in England and Wales in the first week after England’s national lockdown
EU urges Europe to drop all travel bans imposed on the UK
The EU has urged European countries to drop all travel bans imposed on the UK, including on the movement of freight, after a French decision to close the border turned Kent into a giant car park with up to 1,500 lorries now filling the motorway and side streets near Dover.
The European Commission published guidance at lunchtime recommending all non-essential travel to and from the UK should be ‘discouraged’ because of the risk posed by a new mutant strain of coronavirus which spreads quicker than its predecessor.
But it added: ‘Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions.’
On the specific issue of UK lorry drivers being allowed back onto the continent, Brussels said that where a member state requires them to take a coronavirus test before being allowed in – something France is pushing for – the process ‘should not lead to transport disruptions’.
Reports suggested French President Emmanuel Macron had accepted an offer from the UK to use lateral flow tests for lorry drivers which can provide results within an hour rather than more arduous PCR tests which can take 48 hours and which he is said to prefer.
However, Government sources told MailOnline that the two sides were yet to reach an agreement on measures to reopen the border.
Meanwhile, The Sun reported that Boris Johnson is preparing to send in the army to Kent, with soldiers due to be tasked with administering tests to the hundreds of lorry drivers stuck in the county.
Home Secretary Priti Patel added to the fears today, confirming that more areas will be plunged into the toughest tier if coronavirus outbreaks aren’t kept under control and refusing to rule out another national shutdown.
She told Sky News: ‘If the virus continues to spread then we will take stronger measures because at the end of the day our objective is to save lives and to keep people safe.’
SAGE experts have repeated their calls for tougher action, with behavioural psychologist Professor Robert West warning the Government’s current curbs were unlikely to contain the spread of Covid.
He argued the UK needed to bolster social distancing rules and build a test, travel, isolate and support programme similar to ones used in East Asia.
And The Mail understands that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has warned the Prime Minister that the number of patients in hospital with coronavirus is on course to match the April peak by New Year’s Eve – and will continue increasing in January.
Downing Street yesterday tried to play down suggestions that a third national lockdown was imminent, but Sir Patrick said the new strain, which is thought to spread up to 70 per cent more easily, was already present ‘around the country’.
In another day of coronavirus chaos in Britain:
- The EU urged European countries to drop all travel bans imposed on the UK, including on the movement of freight, after a French decision to close the border turned Kent into a giant car park with up to 1,500 lorries now filling the motorway and side streets near Dover;
- Police in York slammed drinkers who travelled to the Tier 2 city’s pubs from neighbouring Tier 3 locations after officers handed out a ‘shocking’ number of fines;
- Parents are ‘dreading’ the prospect hinted at by Home Secretary Priti Patel of schools being shut throughout January as Britain grapples with the new strain of coronavirus;
- Rapid coronavirus tests will cause outbreaks in schools if the Government presses on with plans to roll them out nationally because they are so inaccurate, a top scientist has warned;
- Scientists researching the new variant of coronavirus say they have no proof it is more infectious in children, despite claims it may be more infectious to youngsters than the original strain;
- The multi-millionaire Marquess of Bute and his socialite daughter were charged over an alleged breach of coronavirus restrictions but could face a fine of just £30;
- The UK economy grew by 16 per cent between July and September after coronavirus lockdown rules were eased – but GDP was still almost nine per cent below where it was at the end of 2019.
Separate data today revealed Covid deaths fell by 3 per cent in England and Wales in the first week after England’s national lockdown.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows there were 2,756 coronavirus fatalities in the seven-day spell that ended December 11, with Covid being the underlying cause of death for nearly 85 per cent of victims.
It was the second week in a row that coronavirus deaths dropped, proving that the draconian restrictions did cut the spread of the virus and save hundreds of lives. For comparison, 2,835 fatalities were registered over the last week of lockdown, down from a five-month high of 3,040 the week before.
But the figures don’t prove that England’s return to a whack-a-mole tiered strategy has worked to keep the illness under control long-term because it can take infected patients several weeks to succumb to the disease. It means the effects of the revamped three-tier system won’t be evident in ONS figures for another fortnight.
But swathes of data showed the original tiered restrictions – which Number 10’s top scientists feared wouldn’t be enough to keep the winter crisis at bay – tackled the virus, slashing the number of new infections and thwarting pressure on hospitals in the North West.
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.