Boris Johnson’s government and top scientific advisers have concerns that the new Covid variant could “defeat the vaccine”, a cabinet minister has warned.
South Africa is one of six countries which have been added to England’s travel red list after alarm was raised about the B.1.1.529 variant, described as the “worst one we’ve seen so far”.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said ministers wanted to take a “safety first” approach to the variant over fears it may be able to evade the protection of existing vaccines.
“We can’t take risks when we see a variant which could well defeat the vaccine – or at least that’s the concern – and we need just a bit of time to check that out,” the minister told BBC’s Breakfast.
Mr Shapps said ministers had acted fast to bring in travel changes following an emergency meeting with chief medical officers on Thursday – saying there was “concern” over the “very fast” spread of the variant.
He added: “That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures – it takes several weeks to do – so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is. It is a safety-first approach.”
Flight arrivals from South Africa will be banned between 12 noon on Friday and 4am on Sunday while quarantine hotel accommodation is prepared.
Asked if people must take a PCR test after returning from the countries in southern Africa, Mr Shapps said: “We’ve asked them to. It’s unlikely, given this is only new … we’re not expecting that people who have come back prior to now will have it.”
He added: “The concern about this particular variant is that it is spreading very, very fast, its rate of growth has been very quick, we think the issue is probably (starting) from now, so we’re asking people to quarantine, self-isolate when they get home.”
The UK has no known cases of B.1.1.529 – expected to be named the ‘Nu’ variant in the coming days – but some 60 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has designated it a “variant under investigation”. The body’s chief executive, Dr Jenny Harries, said: “This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway.”
Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, also described it as the “most worrying” variant yet seen during the pandemic.
The EU also aims to halt air travel from the southern African region amid rising concern about the new variant detected there, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.
“The Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” she said in a tweet.
The World Health Organisation is convening an experts’ meeting from Geneva on Friday to assess the new variant and work out if it should be designated a “variant of interest” or “variant of concern”.