As reported in the BBC’s article from 20th December 2020, the rapid spread of a new strain of Covid-19 has been blamed for the implementation of a stricter tier 4 restrictions for millions in the London area, and other parts of southern and eastern England. This also means tighter restrictions for the whole of the UK such as restricted mixing over Christmas, and over 40 countries placing a UK travel ban. According to recent research, the new variant is apparently 70% more spreadable.
Due to these changes in the virus, we can now only mix on Christmas Day with a maximum of three households, instead of between 23rd-27th December, the period where restrictions were originally going to be relaxed. Travels bans from the UK have caused large freight queues on Dover’s port, affecting shipping even more.
The virus’ recent adjustments appear to be a worrying concept as a vaccine has only just been introduced, it is questionable whether this vaccine will work with this strain. This could potentially mean more lockdowns for the UK in the new year, just as we were hoping for a way out. Or maybe this could be a blessing in disguise? As sacrificing and shortening mixing with other households this Christmas could save next year and eventually stop the spread.
The government’s advisers have said that they have “moderate” confidence that this strain is able to transmit quicker than other variants. It is evident that viruses mutate all the time, and it is therefore vital for us to keep a focus to see whether the virus’ behaviour changes at all. New variants can become more common just by being in the right place at the right time. For example, in London, which only had tier 2 restrictions until recently. Therefore, the tier 4 restrictions are in place to reduce the spread of the virus. However, it is debatable that the virus is more likely to spread across the country now as citizen living in London attempt to travel home all at once before restrictions were in place, causing huge crowds in Euston station and on public transport.
This new strain was first detected in September, by November, a quarter of the cases in London was of the new variant. Then cases reached nearly two-thirds by mid-December (BBC, 20th December 2020). The figure was mentioned by Boris Johnson that the new strain is 70% transmissible. This could be increasing the R number, which indicates if an epidemic is either shrinking or growing.
Research presenting the figure of 70% transmission appeared in Dr Erik Volz’s presentation in Imperial College London on Friday. He stated, “It is really too early to tell [how transmissible the strain is] …but from what we see so far it is growing very quickly…it is important to keep an eye on this”. There is in fact, no “nailed on” figure for how infectious the variant may be. There remain questions whether it is any more infectious at all. Professor of virology from the University of Nottingham, Jonathan Ball stated, “The amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission”. (BBC, 20th December 2020).
It is thought that the new strain either emerged in a patient in the UK or has come from a country with a lower ability to monitor the virus’ developments. The variant has been found across the UK, except from Northern Ireland, however, it is highly intense in London, the South East, and eastern England. Data from Nextstrain has been observing genetic codes of different viral samples around the world. The data suggests that cases in Denmark, The Netherlands, and Australia have been transmitted from the UK (BBC News, 20th December 2020).
Additionally, a similar strain has been detected in South Africa, sharing some of the same mutations but overall is unrelated. There is no evidence which suggests that this strain is as deadly as the first, but just increasing the transmission would be enough to cause issues for hospitals which are already overflowing. In terms of the vaccine and its effectiveness on this variant, vaccines train the immune system to attack many parts of the virus, so even though a part has mutated, the vaccine should still be as affective (BBC News, 20th December 2020).
As reported in the BBC’s article from 21st December, many European and international countries have banned arrivals from the UK due to growing concerns of the new strain of Covid. India was the latest state to suspend all flights from the UK until 31st December, along with Hong Kong, Canada, Switzerland, and Germany. On Sunday, France shut its borders with the UK for 48 hours, therefore, lorries and ferries were unable to sail from the port of Dover, causing huge freight queues and a greater shipping and trade backlog.
Along with many other countries in Europe, Ireland and Belgium have suspended their flights from the UK. Austria are also set to stop UK flights, while Bulgaria has cancelled all flights from Tuesday until 31st January 2021. The Eurotunnel have suspended all services and Eurostar trains to Belgium are also not operating. In terms of trade and shipping, the French government have stated that they will establish “protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume” (BBC News, 21st December 2020).
For British citizens who will miss out on seeing family this Christmas, the government have pledged to provide full refunds for rail and coach tickets brought for the Christmas travel window, between 23rd-27th December as millions of people in the UK have had to restrict or cancel their Christmas plans, as new rules state that households of up to three can now only mix on Christmas Day instead of the recently scrapped 5-day relaxation period. Even though freight from France is still allowed to enter the UK, there are fears that many lorry drivers will not travel due to the fear of being stuck in Britain over Christmas (BBC News, 21st December 2020).
On the whole, the new strain of Covid has caused significant disruptions across the UK and has essentially changed Christmas altogether for the whole country this year. The recent travel bans mean that people cannot travel for Christmas and shipping will be greatly affected, especially as the Boxing Day and January sales approach. This has already been proven an issue with queues of lorries at the Dover port amid France’s border closures to the UK. Questions on the vaccine also arise with the new variant as many consider whether they will still be affective, however, researchers have assured that they should be. Maybe, if we sacrifice Christmas this year, we will feel the benefits next year, and we can try and get back to normal, and celebrate Christmas twice as hard in December 2021.
Merry Christmas and a Happy & Healthy New Year, from all of us at Islam & Co!