In a hastily called press conference Saturday, Johnson said the new variant appeared to “be up to 70% more transmissible,” and was responsible for a significant rise in cases in London and southeastern England. Those areas would now be placed under a heightened form of lockdown, said Johnson.
The restrictions are the latest disruption to a Christmas holiday shadowed by the pandemic. As winter descends across the northern hemisphere, governments from Asia to Europe have tightened social-distancing rules and reintroduced lockdown measures to counter a surge in Covid-19 cases. The discovery of the new variant has deepened concerns major restrictions will now continue long into the new year.
Outside of the UK, the new variant has already been identified in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia.
Australian health authorities said two cases of the variant had been found in managed quarantine in Sydney, while Italy’s Health Ministry reported Sunday that a patient had been infected with the variant and placed under isolation in Rome.
All viruses mutate over time and new variants are a common emergence, including for the novel coronavirus. A similar variant to the one identified in the UK has also been identified in South Africa, where scientists say it is spreading quickly along coastal areas of the country.
What do we know about the new variant?
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned Saturday that the new UK variant “can spread more quickly” and is responsible for 60% of infections in the capital, which have nearly doubled in the last week alone.
Whitty cautioned that there is presently no evidence to suggest that the new variant is more deadly, or would neutralize the effectiveness of the newly approved vaccines. However, a more easily spread virus could result in more cases, which in turn could lead to more hospitalizations and potentially more deaths. Even with a vaccine, this could make controlling the virus’s spread far less manageable.
Backwards tracing using genetic evidence suggests the new UK variant emerged in September and then circulated at very low levels in the population until mid-November, according to England Public Health (EPH).
“The increase in cases linked to the new variant first came to light in late November when PHE was investigating why infection rates in Kent were not falling despite national restrictions. We then discovered a cluster linked to this variant spreading rapidly into London and Essex,” the agency said.
Multiple experts have suggested that this new variant could have been amplified because of a superspreader event; it could be the mutation somehow makes it spread more easily without causing more serious illness; or it could have been by chance.
Scientists at EPH have yet to identify the exact mechanism for the likely increase in transmission, though typically a mutation in the spike protein, the part of the virus that attaches itself to host cells, can increase its transmissibility, the agency said.
As of Monday, dozens of countries across Europe, the Middle East and the Americas had announced travel bans for the UK. Others, such as Greece and Spain, have imposed restrictions that require travelers arriving from Britain to undergo coronavirus tests or quarantine.
In South America, Argentina, Chile and Colombia have all suspended direct flights to and from the UK, and El Salvador has banned anyone entering the country from Britain.
Hong Kong became the first place in Asia to restrict British travelers on Monday, halting all passenger flights from the UK from Tuesday and banning all passengers who stayed in the UK for more than two hours in the past 14 days from arriving in the city.
In the Middle East, flights from the UK were barred in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
And across Europe, countries have closed their borders to travelers from UK, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Luxembourg, the Republic of Ireland, Estonia and the Czech Republic.
The 48-hour ban on all travel from the UK imposed by France from midnight Sunday has been particularly disruptive, as it includes freight trucks traveling through the Eurotunnel under the English Channel. The Port of Dover on England’s south coast announced on Sunday night that its ferry terminal was “closed to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice due to border restrictions in France.”
Monday’s emergency meeting of UK government officials is expected to focus on the international restrictions, and “in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK,” the Prime Minister’s spokesperson told CNN. “Further meetings are happening this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure robust plans are in place,” the spokesperson added.
On Monday, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tried to allay fears on disruption to food supplies, saying the Eurotunnel from Dover to Calais only accounts for about 20% of goods going in and out of the country.
“It’s not the mainstay, most goods come in and out in unaccompanied containers and those will continue to flow,” he said.
CNN’s Amy Woodyatt, Taylor Barnes and Tara John contributed reporting.