The World Health Organization knows of a new variant of COVID-19 that appeared in the UK, but there is no evidence that the strain behaves differently to existing strains of the virus, it said Monday.
“We are aware of this genetic variant reported in 1,000 individuals in England,” Mike Ryan, the lead expert on emergencies, said in a news release in Geneva. “Authorities are looking at its significance. We’ve seen a lot of variants, this virus is evolving and changing over time.”
London needs to move to the highest level of coronavirus restrictions due to concerns about increasing numbers of infections, the health minister announced on Monday. The transition from the British capital to “Tier 3” by 0001 GMT on Wednesday means that theaters as well as pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues will have to close, except to take away food.
People are not supposed to interact with anyone not from their household, but they can meet in groups of up to six in public places outside. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said London had seen “sharp growth” in day-to-day cases and inpatient hospitals, and there was public health concern about the new strain of the coronavirus.
“This action is absolutely essential, not only to secure people, but because we have seen that early action can prevent more damage and longer-term problems later,” he told parliament.
In some places, cases double every seventh day, he said, warning: “It only takes a few doubles for the NHS (National Health Service) to be overwhelmed.”
Scientists have identified a “new variant” of the virus in the south of England that may be causing the spread of infections more quickly, Hancock added.
But he said: “At present nothing suggests that it is more likely to cause serious cases and the latest clinical advice is that it is very unlikely to fail to respond to a vaccine.”
London is currently in “Tier 2”, which means non-essential shops and services can open, but it currently has one of the highest infection rates in the country.
Level 3 or “very high alert” means that while bars, pubs and cafes can only offer edible meals and drinks, shops and hairdressers can stay open, as can schools.
However, several London districts are sending children home from Tuesday as a precaution, after the government said last week that it was concerned about the growing number of cases among high school children.
Testing of 11- to 18-year-old students began in the worst-hit areas on Monday. The shift to stricter resources is a new blow for businesses already hit by repeated restrictions this year and before Christmas, usually their busiest time.
Parts of the counties of Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire, which border London, will also be placed in Tier 3. London Mayor Sadiq Khan called the rise in cases “deeply critical” but warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the move would be “disastrous” for pubs, bars and art sites.
On Friday the “R number” in London indicating how many other people someone with the virus will be infected was between 0.9 and 1.1, according to the government’s website. More than 201,000 cases were registered in the capital and more than 7,000 people died in hospital.