Britain has detected a new variant of the coronavirus in contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa, Health Secretary Matt Hancock says.
South Africa’s health department said last week that a new genetic mutation of the virus had been found and might be responsible for a recent surge in infections there.
“Thanks to the impressive genomic capability of the South Africans, we’ve detected two cases of another new variant of coronavirus here in the UK,” Hancock told a media briefing.
“Both are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks.”
Britain is already battling to curb the spread of a mutated strain of the virus which is up to 70 percent more transmissible.
“This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the (first) new variant that’s been discovered in the UK,” Hancock said.
He said close contacts of those with the new variant were being quarantined and all those who had been in South Africa in the last fortnight also needed to quarantine.
He also said immediate restrictions were being imposed on travel from South Africa.
UK imposes more lockdowns amid record case numbers
Meanwhile, the UK government said huge swathes of England would be placed under its strictest Covid-19 restrictions as the mutated strain of the virus sweeps the country, pushing the number of cases to a record level.
Britain reported almost 40,000 new infections as the number of cases and hospital admissions to soar.
The number of recorded deaths – 744 – was also the highest figure since April.
“Against this backdrop of rising infections, rising hospitalisations and rising numbers of people dying from coronavirus, it is absolutely vital that we act,” Hancock said. “We simply cannot have the kind of Christmas that we all yearn for.”
On Saturday, tight social mixing restrictions measures were brought in for London, southeast England and Wales while plans to ease curbs over Christmas across the nation were either dramatically scaled back or scrapped altogether.
Hancock said from Boxing Day many more parts of southern England would be also be added to the highest level of social mixing restrictions, joining the 16 million already in Tier 4, while other areas across the country currently in lower tiers would also face tighter curbs.
The governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland have already announced that nearly everyone living in those countries would be subjected to the highest level of restrictions after Christmas.
Hancock said there was on average 1909 Covid hospital admissions a day, with 18,943 people currently in hospital with the coronavirus, levels not seen since the peak of the first outbreak in April.