Flights from South Africa and five other countries will be suspended from midday tomorrow, with returning UK travellers forced to quarantine, due to a new super-mutant Covid variant described as the ‘worst ever’.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid made the announcement on Thursday night, in which he admitted the worrying strain could make current vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective.
Experts explained earlier how the B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations – the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta – that suggest it could be more vaccine resistant and transmissible than any version before it.
It has caused an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa and has already spread to three countries – including Hong Kong and Botswana, where it is believed to have emerged.
It’s unclear what impact the variant – which could be named ‘Nu’ by the World Health Organization in the coming days – will have on protection against serious illness, hospitalisation or death.
There are around 700 travellers flying into the UK from South Africa every day and an estimated 10,000 will have returned since the variant was first spotted on November 11 in Botswana.
No cases have been detected in the UK so far but everyone who has returned from South Africa in the past 10 days will be contacted and asked to take a test.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘The early indication we have of this variant is it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it.
‘Now, to be clear, we have not detected any of this new variant in the UK at this point in time. But we’ve always been clear that we will take action to protect the progress that we have made.
‘So, what we will be doing is from midday tomorrow we will be suspending all flights from six southern African countries and we will add in those countries to the travel Red List.
‘Those countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. We will be requiring anyone that arrives from those countries from 4am on Sunday to quarantine in hotels.
‘If anyone arrives before then they should self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight. And if anyone has arrived from any of those countries over the last 10 days, we would ask them to take PCR tests.’
Mr Javid added: “Our scientists are deeply concerned about this variant. I’m concerned, of course, that’s one of the reasons we have taken this action today.”
Asked what the situation would mean for the UK over the coming weeks, with Christmas approaching, Mr Javid said: “We’ve got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans – the so-called Plan B.
“But today’s announcement, this is about a new variant from South Africa – it’s been detected in South Africa and Botswana – and this is about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders.”
His statement came after ministers were called to an emergency meeting of the Covid Operations cabinet committee tonight, chaired by Cabinet Office minister Steven Barclay.
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in South Africa. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
The above slide shows the proportion of tests that picked up a SGTF mutation, a hallmark of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading rapidly in the country. The slide was presented at a briefing today run by the South African Government
The above slide shows variants that have been detected by province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests B.1.1.529 is focused in Gauteng province. This was presented at a briefing today from the South African Government
The above shows the test positivity rate — the proportion of tests that picked up the virus — across Gauteng province. It reveals that there is an uptick of cases in the northern part of the province. It is not clear whether this could be driven by B.1.1.529
The original Red List was reduced to zero nations at the end of last month when the remaining seven countries on it were removed.
No10 has left the door open to bringing back the notorious traffic light travel system with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying last month hundreds of hotel rooms were still on standby for quarantine.
The UKHSA said it had been in extensive talks with scientists in South Africa about the new variant but the situation is ‘rapidly evolving’.
Although only 100 cases of the new variant have so far been identified, it is already in three countries, suggesting it is more widespread than the official tally.
Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong – both of whom had links to South Africa –three have been picked up in Botswana and the remainder are in South Africa.
But a lack of surveillance on continental Africa may be underestimating the true numbers there, scientists warned.
UK experts say it will be another two to eight weeks until they can study the variant in enough detail to work out how infectious or vaccine-resistant it is.
Nationally, infections in South Africa have surged tenfold from 100 per day to 1,100, after the variant was first detected in neighbouring Botswana on November 11.
UK Government scientists believe it can infect previously-infected patients with ease, because South Africa has very high levels of natural immunity.
Only 41 percent of adults have received at least a single dose of vaccine, while 35 percent are fully vaccinated.
In a hastily organised press conference today, the South African Government revealed the variant had been officially spotted in three provinces but warned it was probably already in all nine.
A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa
Experts in the UK earlier called for travel restrictions to be reimposed to prevent the strain being seeded here and avoid risking a repeat of this spring when the Delta variant was imported in huge numbers from India.
Zero-Covid scientist Professor Christina Pagel urged ministers to ‘get ahead of this right now’ by immediately’ reimposing the red travel list ‘ — which was only scrapped a few weeks ago.
And Chris Snowdon, an economist who is normally in favour of fewer restrictions, also called for an immediate travel ban.
The Government has left the door open to bringing back the notorious traffic light travel system with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying last month hundreds of hotel rooms were still on standby for quarantine.
MailOnline first sounded the alarm about the variant yesterday after British scientists warned that it had more than 30 mutations and is the most evolved version of Covid yet. They said it likely emerged in a long-term infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
The fact that South Africa has the largest number of people living HIV out of any country in the world has complicated its fight against Covid, as immuno-compromised people can harbor the virus for longer, scientists say.
It comes as Britain’s daily Covid cases began to flatline today, official data showed after weeks of falling deaths and hospitalisations. This was the first time the percentage jump was below one since November 10.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said the variant could become dominant in South Africa ‘very quickly’.
Asked whether it could soon make up the majority of cases in South Africa, he told MailOnline: ‘The numbers [of cases] are very small and there is a lot of uncertainty… but I would say it might become dominant very quickly.’
He said it was ‘plausible’ that the variant was more infectious because it was ‘better at infecting’ people that had immunity from vaccines or previous infections.
But he said very little is known about how likely someone who catches the variant would be to become seriously ill and die from the virus. Experts say viruses normally become less virulent over time.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a director of Covid surveillance in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, said that the variant had spread rapidly in South Africa.
‘In less than two weeks it now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa.
‘We estimate that 90 per cent of cases in Gauteng (at least 1,000 a day) [are this variant].’