Even before the havoc wreaked by the new coronavirus has died down, a new strain is spreading alarm in Britain. The new variant is reported to spread 70 per cent faster. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the virus is “out of control”.
That has thrown Britons’ Christmas plans in disarray as Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced restrictions in the areas, where the new strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found.
Europe has responded with travel restrictions as travellers carried the strain to Italy, South Africa and Australia. The variant could have reached other countries as well since it was found to have surfaced in mid-September. Several countries in other parts of the world have imposed flight restrictions, and some even closed the borders.
Let’s take a look at the new strain and how Britain is grappling with the mutated variant. We also bring you some glimpses of how it ruined the Christmas plans of Britons.
What’s the new strain of coronavirus?
The new strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is called ‘VUI – 202012/01’ as it is the first variant under investigation in December. It is the result of mutation, and all viruses mutate. Since the new coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, it has mutated around 25 times. And there are several strains in circulation around the world.
Where was the mutated strain first found?
The new variant is believed to have first occurred in mid-September in London or Kent, in the southeast of England, according to Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical adviser. It was identified in London on September 21 and in Kent a day earlier. By mid-November, 28 per cent of cases in London could be attributed to the new variant. Since December 9, it was responsible for 62 per cent of patients in London, the Wall Street Journal quoted Vallance as saying.
Hancock told the British parliament that at least 60 local authorities had recorded infections caused by the new variant.
How’s the new strain different from the previous ones?
Scientists have identified 23 genetic changes in the new strain. One significant modification is an N501Y mutation in the spike protein on the virus that is used to cling on to human cells.
Is the new strain more dangerous?
It is not known. Available evidence shows that the new strain is only as dangerous as the other strains. But reports say no increased virulence has been noticed. “There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography, especially where there are increased cases being detected,” Dr Susan Hopkins, joint medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, told the BMJ, a leading general medical journal.
The same precautions and safety protocols will work to ward off the new strain too. There’s no reason for undue alarm since all mutations need not necessarily make the virus more dangerous.
So what’s the threat from the new variant?
It’s more easily transmitted. People can catch this coronavirus variant faster. Vallance said that studies on the virus’ genetic makeup, statistics and in the laboratory show that this variant is significantly more prone to be transmitted among people than earlier strains.
Will the vaccines protect from the new strain?
All the leading will protect from the new strain of the coronavirus as most of them targeting spike protein. The new variant has only one alteration to the spike protein, and a single change is unlikely to make the vaccines less effective.
The vaccines train the body’s immune system to attack the spike, and the body learns to attack other parts of the spike. So health officials are convinced the vaccine will work against this variant also.
When more mutations occur, the vaccine may need to be modified as in the case of influenza. The SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t mutate as fast as the flu virus, so the vaccines will provide effective protection.
Image Credit: AFP
How Britain is coping with the mutant virus
Areas of London and southeast England, which are under tough new Tier 4 COVID rules, could be stuck under the lockdown measures until the vaccine is rolled out because the new mutant variant of coronavirus is “out of control”, the health secretary has said. Matt Hancock said the UK faces an “enormous challenge” controlling the new strain after scientists found it was able to spread more rapidly.
“It is out of control and we need to bring it under control,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning. I am really worried about the NHS. There are currently just over 18,000 in NHS hospitals with coronavirus.
A series of strict measures to try to slow the spread of the new strain have come into effect in parts of Britain. London and much of southeast England, as well as all of Wales, have entered a new Tier 4 set of restrictions. Movement into and out of these areas has been restricted and foreign travel for all but work reasons is effectively banned.
Scotland has also banned all travel into and out of the country from other parts of the UK, with police doubling their presence along the border. The new measures, prohibited movements and rolling back a planned five-day Christmas easing of rules, have played sudden havoc up and down the UK.
New variant has reached Wales and Scotland
The new quick-spreading variant of coronavirus detected in the south-east of England and London has now spread further afield. And public health officials warn that a last-minute rush to try and beat travel restrictions may have led to the spread of the variant. It has now been detected in Wales and Scotland – but not yet in Northern Ireland. Dr Hopkins of Public Health England said: “Every region has cases but with very small numbers. It has also been detected in Wales, in Scotland, we have not had any detected in Northern Ireland.”
Dr Hopkins also said that she hoped people who had crammed onto trains out of London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday the capital was one of the areas going into the new Tier 4 would reduce their contacts. “I understand people’s wish to get home to their families and loved ones that they may live with on a normal day-to-day basis and wanted to get out of London on Saturday night,” she said.
“I hope that when they go to wherever they are moving to they reduce their social contacts and don’t contact anyone outside their household for the next 10 days, as that will help minimise the risk of transmission to other parts of the country. We know it’s in other parts of the country in small amounts but what we are trying to do is prevent more spread and rapid increases across the rest of the country.”
Image Credit: AFP
Wearing a mask for Christmas dinner
Now people living in Kent are being urged to wear masks when having friends and family over this Christmas. The county’s public health director has made the plea, after weeks of surging infection rates. Andrew Scott-Clark also says people should keep the mixing of households to a minimum and think about opening windows to keep homes well ventilated. “We’re very worried that more people gathering and mingling, particularly indoors over the Christmas period, is going to create a really difficult January for us all. So, the more we can reduce those social interactions, the better we’ll be coming into January.”
They’ll be home for Christmas
It’s been a rough year for octogenarians Paul and Sue Harris, who live in a neat bungalow in the seaside town of Morecambe in northwest England. Sue’s eyesight has deteriorated badly, Paul has a chronic coeliac condition and they’re still coming to grips with the loss of their youngest son, Mark, who died from cancer 15 months ago.
They’ve been isolating for months but when Prime Minister Johnson said in early December that coronavirus restrictions would be eased for five days over the Christmas period to allow up to three households to come together, Paul and Sue held out hope that they could travel to Suffolk, about an hour’s drive to the northeast of London. They even arranged train tickets and ordered some prime Scottish beef to take with them as a treat for their daughter and her family. But that has all changed. Paul and Sue will be at home for Christmas.
Under the new rules, Christmas gatherings must be limited, travel is mostly prohibited now and any households can only meet on December 25 itself. “We can’t go now,” Sue told Gulf News. “It is disappointing but it’s better to keep everyone safe. We can’t take any risks.” Instead, they are planning to enjoy a little of that beef and put the rest in the freezer for better times.
So much for football and pantomimes
For many in the UK, the traditional Christmas seasons means watching football and comic pantomimes. Portsmouth is a city known for its long maritime history and being home to the Royal Navy. But like any other community up and down the United Kingdom, it is now feeling the full effects of the tough new lockdown restrictions tightened by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week.
The city of nearly 220,000 on the south-west coast of England had been in Tier 2, meaning people could mingle in limited numbers while restaurants and pubs could remain open. It was moved up to the stricter Tier 3 last week. Those new rules meant that up to 2,000 football fans could watch Portsmouth FC – currently top of League One, the third flight of English professional football – at Fratton Park. Now, the fans are banned, and the club said its next game on December 26 against Swindon would now take place behind closed doors. Havant and Waterlooville FC said it was “saddened to announce” it was “unable to admit fans to home games for the foreseeable future” and Saturday’s game with Braintree Town was to be streamed online instead.
Kings Theatre in Southsea, which launched its Dick Whittington pantomime on December 8, held its last show on Friday night. A statement on the theatre’s Facebook page said: “We’re so proud of what we have achieved staging our first Pompey panto and we are devastated that the show must be closed over Christmas whilst we’re in tier three.” Sadly, the show won’t go on…
Image Credit: Bloomberg
Teenage angst ends in tiers
For the past year, Milly Taylor had been looking forward to December 23 – her 16th birthday. Even when coronavirus struck in the spring Milly and her family, who live in a quiet village in the Derby Dales about 40 minutes’ drive south from Manchester, had been holding out hopes of hosting a party two days before Christmas. “Because Milly was born on December 23, her birthday is sometimes lost in the run-up to Christmas Day,” her mother Julie told Gulf News. “This year was going to be special. ”Well, stricter coronavirus rules now introduced on Saturday means that the small family can’t even get together with their other son, Declan, a nurse in a Leeds hospital.
Travel across the UK is mostly prohibited – and it’s hard to realistically justify visiting home for Milly’s birthday as essential. There will be no physical party. Instead, the family has arranged for all her friends and family to Zoom in for a birthday bash, dress up and even blow out a candle themselves when it comes to that moment. “It’s not the same but it will be something to remember.”
As far as Milly is concerned, the virtual birthday is just another wrinkle in a year that has brought two separate periods of isolation and missed school because classmates tested positive. And with GCSE exams supposed to take place in the summer, like tens of thousands of students across England, Milly doesn’t know if those can indeed happen.
Living under restrictions since the summer
Since July, areas of Greater Manchester and Lancashire in the north-west of England have been living under the toughest levels of restriction. Last week, as officials in Westminster reviewed the criteria, there was hope that the region might move down for Tier 3 to Tier 2 – just as the Liverpool region did on December 2. But politicians and public health experts in the region are at least hoping that the huge area – home to more than 7 million people, might be at least split – allowing for districts with lower infection rates to be loved into a lower tier.
Blackburn with Darwen Council’s public health director Professor Dominic Harrison said keeping the area in Tier 3 was wise. “There is a possibility following the decision to split Hertfordshire between tiers they may do the same in Lancashire. We wait with baited breath. With Christmas on the horizon I think Tier 3 is the wisest decision for now and we will see where we are in the second week in January.”
His Lancashire County Council counterpart Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi said: “I think that although our rates of infection in overall terms have been falling since October, we will be put in tier three. In epidemiological and public health terms that is the right decision.”
■ The variant 20A.EU1 is known to have spread from farm workers to local populations in Spain in June and July. Tourists returning from Spain are believed to have helped in the spread across Europe.
■ Another variant (D614G ), detected in western Europe and North America, is believed to spread more quickly but not cause severe illness.
Buying that place in the sun
For Steven Burns, who runs a successful home construction company in the East Midlands, years of hard work meant that he could always dream of that place in the sun. And for the past year, he and his partner have been moving towards that goal, narrowing down the choice of properties in Spain and Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands some 120 kilometres to the west off the coast of Morocco. And at the end of November, one property on nearly 5 hectares, set high in the hills overlooking the sea and the resort and yachting marina of Puerto Calero.
The couple had planned to travel to the island on December 18, with a viewing arranged for December 19 – before returning home just before Christmas Day. But on December 2, new tier rules came into force – East Midlands was in Tier 3. Then the UK government changed quarantine rules, meaning any visitors to the Canaries – which had been placed in a ‘green’ or safe travel category – would now have to isolate for 14 days on their return.
On Saturday, Boris Johnson changed the rules again – banning all foreign travel until a review early in the New Year. But the new rules, travel restrictions and the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t get in the way of the couple’s dream. They made a successful offer on the property after spending three hours on Facetime video as the real estate agent walked through the home – just as if they were there. And come March, the couple will be for real. The coronavirus won’t get in the way of their dream.
UK economy under strain
The UK economy had been reeling from the cost of coronavirus, with the government spending more than £230 billion (Dh1.125 trillion) fighting the pandemic that has brought the worst economic downturn in 310 years.
Now the discovery of new virus strain in Britain has meant more lockdowns and more economic troubles as its borders with the rest of Europe were sealed to air, sea and road freight.
The disruption to international travel and the flow of freight in and out of Britain threatens chaos for British households and businesses at the busiest time of the year with Christmas just days away and companies trying to secure supplies to avoid any Brexit fallout.
Coinciding with the lack of a post-Brexit trade deal ahead of the December 31 deadline, it sent the pound 2.5 per cent lower below $1.32 putting it on track for its biggest daily fall since March in trading in London Monday lunchtime.