New variant of coronavirus identified: UK to move to highest alert
London, Dec 15: Britain's capital will be placed under the highest level of coronavirus restrictions from Wednesday amid a "very sharp" spike in Covid-19 cases in London and its surrounding areas and a new variant of coronavirus being identified as responsible for the "faster spread", the UK government announced in Parliament on Monday.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs in the House of Commons that "swift and decisive action" was needed as the doubling rate of the deadly virus has hit just seven days in many of these areas.
Tier-3 restrictions, the highest level in England's three-tier system, mean a near-complete lockdown, with people allowed to meet those they do not live with only in outdoor settings and hospitality venues directed to shut except for takeaways and deliveries.
"A new variant of coronavirus has been identified in the UK, which may be associated with the fastest spread in the southeast of England," said Hancock.
"We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant but no matter its cause, we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out...We must act now to shift the curve... because when the virus moves quickly, we must move quickly too," he said.
The minister said that experts had identified over 1,000 cases with the variant, predominantly in the south of England.
"Cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the last few months," he said, adding that the World Health Organisation has been notified about the variant and that it is unlikely to cause more serious disease than other variants of the coronavirus.
He stressed that mobile testing and community testing are also being expanded, with another 67 local authorities getting community testing this week to help areas "move down tiers" and return closer to normal life.
In reference to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout currently underway, Hancock said that thanks to science "help is on its way", but "this isn't over yet".
The announcement on Monday means that even ahead of the formal review date of the tier system scheduled for Wednesday, Greater London, the South and West of Essex and South Hertfordshire will be placed into Tier 3 from 0001 GMT on Wednesday morning.