Boris Johnson’s administration and senior scientific advisors have concerns that the new variant of Covid could “defeat the vaccine,” a cabinet minister warned.
South Africa is one of six countries that were put on England’s red travel list after the B.1.1.529 variant was alerted – described as “the worst we’ve seen so far”.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said ministers wanted to take a “safety approach” to the variant, fearing that they might bypass the protection of existing vaccines.
“We can’t take any chances if we see a variant that could defeat the vaccine – or at least that’s the concern – and we just need a bit of time to review,” the minister told the BBC breakfast.
Mr Shapps said ministers acted quickly to make travel changes following an emergency meeting with chief medical officers on Thursday and there was “concern” about the “very rapid” spread of the variant.
He added, “This will give us some time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome that will be growing cultures – it takes several weeks – so we can figure out how important this particular variant is. It’s a security approach. “
Flight arrivals from South Africa will be banned between 12:00 p.m. Friday and 4:00 a.m. Sunday while quarantine hotel accommodations are being prepared.
When asked if people have to do a PCR test after they return from the countries of southern Africa, Mr. Shapps said: “We asked them to do it. It’s unlikely as this is just new … we don’t expect people who came back earlier to have it. “
He added, “The concern about this particular variety is that it is spreading very, very quickly, its rate of growth has been very rapid. isolate themselves when they come home. “
No cases of B.1.1.529 are known in the UK, but around 60 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
The British Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has called it a “variant under investigation”. The chief executive of the board, Dr. Jenny Harries said, “This is the most significant variant we have come across and urgent research is ongoing.”
Susan Hopkins, Senior Medical Advisor at UKHSA, also described it as the “most worrying” variant to date during the pandemic.
The EU also wants to stop air traffic from southern Africa, as concerns about the new variant discovered there are increasing, said EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Friday.
“The Commission will propose, in close coordination with the Member States, to activate the emergency brake in order to cease air traffic from southern Africa due to the worrying variant B.1.1.529,” she said in a tweet.
The World Health Organization is calling a meeting of experts from Geneva on Friday to evaluate the new variant and to work out whether it should be described as an “interesting variant” or a “worrying variant”.