What we know about the new coronavirus variant as Matt Hancock warns mutant strain is 'out of control'

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As Health Secretary Matt Hancock issues a warning over a new coronavirus strain, we look at the latest details about it.

When was it identified?

News that a new variant of the virus had been identified was first broken to MPs on Monday, December 14 by the Health Secretary.

Addressing the Commons on the Government’s decisions to move large parts of the South East into Tier 3 restrictions, Mr Hancock said: “Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the South East of England.”

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Health Secretary Matt HancockHealth Secretary Matt Hancock
Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead at World Health Organisation, said on Sunday, December 20 that a new strain of coronavirus in the South East was identified as early as September.

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Where has it been found?

The majority of new variant’s 1,000 cases had been found in the south of England, Mr Hancock told MPs, though cases had been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.

Ms Van Kerkhove said the variant had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, adding: “The longer this virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change.

“So we really need to do everything we can right now to prevent spread, and minimising that spread will reduce the chances of it changing.”

Is it more deadly?

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Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said in a statement: “As announced on Monday, the UK has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England’s genomic surveillance.

“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.”

The new variant, while more infectious, does not appear to have a higher mortality rate.

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Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that there was no evidence the new variant of coronavirus was causing a disproportionate number of hospital admissions.

Asked if the new variant could lead to an increase in mortality, she told Sky News on Sunday: “We have got no signals, so the first signals we would expect to see is in the South East where this has definitely increased over weeks now.

“We are not seeing a disproportionate number of people being admitted to hospital over the last two weeks and we are not seeing any increases in mortality yet.”

Have travel plans been affected?

London and the South East are now under new Tier 4 restrictions, with households banned from forming Christmas bubbles.

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The announcement sparked a last-minute rush on Saturday, as train stations were packed with people trying to leave the Capital before the new rules began on Sunday morning.

Several countries have also imposed travel bans on the UK.

Eurostar trains between Belgium and the UK have been cancelled from Monday (December 21), following the Belgian government’s announcement that borders with the UK will close at midnight on Sunday.

Italy has joined Belgium and the Netherlands in banning flights from the UK.

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