The whole of the UK needs to be put under Tier 4 as soon as today and any Christmas mixing needs to be cancelled in order to prevent the pandemic from getting out of control, a group of leading scientists has warned.
Independent Sage, an unofficial group of top academics that provide advice on the pandemic, warned on Thursday the new strain of the virus presented a significant risk to the nation’s public health.
They said the emergence of the new variant and the possibility of more variants appearing meant there needs to be a “complete rethink of all mitigation strategies”.
They said: “The situation across the UK, particularly England and Wales, is rapidly worsening.”
Independent Sage added the new variant was “making a bad situation worse”.
Watch: Scientists unsure why mutant strain spreads faster
The new variant of COVID-19 is believed to be up to 70% more infectious than the normal strain and has been attributed to the steep rise in cases in the south-east of England.
It is mostly concentrated in the South East, but the government has acknowledged it has already spread to all parts of the country.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said around half of all new coronavirus cases in England could be the new variant discovered in the UK.
The problem with Christmas is simply this: if one person is infected with Covid-19, *especially* the new variant, very possible that by the end of a lovely Christmas Dinner & day, everyone who was there is infected.
*Please* stay home or meet outdoors (2m apart!) to save lives. https://t.co/swAIN2Ln1f
— Christina Pagel (@chrischirp) December 24, 2020
In London, 68% of positive cases from 14 to 18 December were estimated to be genetically compatible with the new variant, while in eastern and south-east England the estimate is 65%.
Independent Sage pointed to modelling by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which estimated 90% of new cases by mid-January will be the new variant.
They said: “Christmas day mixing of households indoors for prolonged periods of time, as allowed in Tiers 1 to 3 in England and across the devolved nations, sets the scene for thousands of super-spreading events.
“In the context of the new strain, this is incredibly dangerous.”
Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, said: “The problem with Christmas is simply this: if one person is infected with COVID-19, especially the new variant, very possible that by the end of a lovely Christmas dinner and day, everyone who was there is infected.”
Independent SAGE called on the government to cancel the Christmas Day rules, put all of England in Tier 4, with the devolved nations bringing forward their lockdowns to Thursday instead of Saturday and to speedup of the vaccination process.
They also called on the government to put in place an emergency plan to enable safe education at the start of the term.
The government has already been forced to roll back on its planned relaxation of rules over Christmas in recent days as infections got out of control.
London and parts of the South East were put under Tier 4 on Sunday, which is equivalent to the lockdown the nation saw in November.
Millions more people are set to join London and parts of the South East and East of England in Tier 4 on Boxing Day, meaning more than 40% of England’s population will be under Tier 4.
Areas moving to Tier 4 from Boxing Day are: Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, those parts of Essex not yet in Tier 4, Waverley in Surrey and Hampshire – including Portsmouth and Southampton but with the exception of the New Forest.
It comes after the UK implemented a travel ban on South Africa amid concerns over another new strain of COVID-19, which is feared to be more transmissible than that discovered in the UK.
Watch: COVID-19: What do we know about the second coronavirus variant found in the UK?