At a hurried press conference on Saturday, Johnson said the new variant appeared to be “up to 70% more transmissible”, and was responsible for a spike in cases in London and southeast England. Johnson said these areas would now be placed under a tightened form of lockdown.
The restrictions are the latest disruption to the Christmas holidays clouded by the pandemic. As winter sets in across the northern hemisphere, governments from Asia to Europe have tightened social distancing rules and re-enforced lockdown measures to counter the surge in Covid-19 cases. The discovery of the new variable has deepened concerns that the major restrictions will now last 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 were found in a managed quarantine in Sydney, while the Italian Ministry of Health said Sunday that a patient had contracted the variant and was placed under isolation in Rome.
All viruses mutate over time, and new variants are common, including the new coronavirus. A variant similar to the one identified in the United Kingdom has been identified in South Africa, where scientists say it is spreading rapidly along the coastal areas of the country.
What do we know about the new alternative?
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned on Saturday that the new British alternative “could spread more quickly” and was responsible for 60% of infections in the capital, which nearly doubled in the past week alone.
Witty cautioned that there is currently no evidence to suggest the new variant is more lethal, or that it will inactivate newly approved vaccines. However, a virus that spreads more easily could lead to more cases, which in turn could lead to more hospitalizations and possibly more deaths. Even with a vaccine, this can make the virus spread much less under control.
Backtracking using genetic evidence indicates that the new British variant emerged in September and then traded at very low levels in the population through mid-November, according to Public Health England (EPH).
“The increase in cases associated with the new variant first appeared in late November when PHE was investigating why infection rates were not declining in Kent despite national restrictions. We then discovered a group linked to this variant is spreading rapidly in London and Essex,” the agency said.
Several experts suggested that this new variant could have been amplified due to the superspreader event; The mutation could somehow cause it to spread more easily without causing more serious disease; Or it might be a coincidence.
The agency said that EPH scientists have not yet identified the exact mechanism for the potential increase in transmission, although a mutation in the spike protein, a part of the virus that attaches itself to host cells, could increase its transmissibility.
As of Monday, dozens of countries across Europe, the Middle East and the Americas have announced travel bans in the United Kingdom. Other countries, such as Greece and Spain, have imposed restrictions that require travelers from Britain to undergo coronavirus tests or quarantine.
In South America, Argentina, Chile and Colombia have stopped direct flights to and from the United Kingdom, and El Salvador has banned anyone from 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 United Kingdom from Tuesday and banning all passengers who have 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 United Kingdom were banned in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
Across Europe, countries have closed their borders to travelers from the United Kingdom, 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 on Sunday was particularly devastating, as it includes freight trucks traveling through the Eurotunnel under the English Channel. The port of Dover on the south coast of England announced Sunday night that its ferry terminal is “closed to all accompanying traffic departing the United Kingdom until further notice due to border restrictions in France”.
Monday’s emergency meeting of UK government officials is expected to focus on international restrictions, and “in particular the steady flow of freight to and from the UK,” a spokesperson for the prime minister told CNN. The spokesman added: “Other meetings will be held this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure that strong plans are in place.”
On Monday, British Transport Secretary Grant Shaps tried to allay concerns about food supply disruptions, saying that the Eurotnnel tunnel from Dover to Calais accounts for only about 20% of the goods entering and leaving the country.
“It’s not the mainstay,” he said. “Most of the goods go in and out of unaccompanied containers and these will continue to flow.”
CNN’s Amy Woodyat, Taylor Barnes, and Tara John contributed to the report.