The second mutated variant of coronavirus announced by Matt Hancock today has already been found in London and North West England after being brought to the UK from South Africa.
Ministers fear this variant, known as 501Y.V2, is even more infectious than the one found in Kent that has been behind a recent explosion of coronavirus infections in the East, South East and London.
Mr Hancock revealed two cases of the South African variant have been detected so far in England in contacts of people who had travelled back from the country in recent weeks. He made the announcement as he plunged millions more people in the South East of England into Tier Four, with the measures kicking in at midnight on Christmas Day.
The cases had no link between them, with one in London and the other in the North West of England, MailOnline understands, and the links to South Africa were discovered yesterday. The fact that they were detected through random routine sampling which picks out only around one in 10 tests carried out in the UK – and that they are thought to have been infected by separate travellers – suggests there are many more cases of the variant already in Britain.
Scientists first discovered the new variant in mid-October and it had become the country’s dominant strain by the beginning of November, research shows. It is likely to have spread much further afield but many countries – particularly in Africa – do not examine virus samples in as much detail as Britain and South Africa do, experts say.
There are currently four flights per week into London from Cape Town and a further four from Johannesburg, suggesting there may have been at least 50 flights from South Africa into the UK since the start of November and possibly thousands of people entering the country. Tests at the border are not a requirement in the UK.
Mr Hancock said the discovery of the variant in the UK was ‘highly concerning’ and revealed ‘immediate restrictions’ were being imposed on travel to and from South Africa. Those who have arrived from the country in the last fortnight are being urged to quarantine for two weeks.