LONDON – London and surrounding areas will be placed below the highest level of coronavirus restrictions starting Wednesday as infections are rapidly increasing in the capital, the health secretary said Monday, adding that a new variant of the virus could be the cause of the spread.
Health Minister Matt Hancock said the government needs to act quickly after seeing “very sharp, exponential increases” in Greater London and nearby Kent and Essex. He said that in some areas, cases double every seven days.
The increase in COVID-19 cases in southern England may be associated with a new variant of coronavirus, Hancock told lawmakers. He said officials are reviewing the new strict, but stressed that there was nothing to suggest it was more likely to cause serious illness, or that it would not respond to a vaccine.
“We have currently identified more than 1,000 cases with this variant, mainly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authorities,” he said. Initial analysis suggests that the new variant is growing faster than existing variants, he added.
“The medical advice we have is that this new variant is highly unlikely to affect the vaccine and the impact of the vaccine,” he said.
Britain began vaccinating people over 80 and health professionals with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 8, and regulators are also evaluating other vaccines, including one developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Thousands have been vaccinated so far, but they must return for a second injection within 21 days. The National Health Service said hundreds of medical clinics across England will deliver vaccines on Monday and offer injections on Tuesday.
According to the Tier 3 restrictions, the toughest level in England’s three-tier system, people cannot socialize indoors and must close bars, pubs and restaurants, except for takeout. People are told to keep travel within or into the area to a minimum, and Hancock said people shouldn’t take trips to central London to do Christmas shopping.
London is currently in Tier 2 aka High Alert which applies to most of England.
In November, the capital was among the areas with the lowest regional infection rates in England, but some areas in and around London have now become hotspots for viruses.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s chief of emergencies, said the UN health agency was aware of the new species being reported in the UK and worked with UK and other health authorities to assess whether the reported mutations were moving the way. the virus could change behaves.
“This kind of evolution and mutations like this are quite common,” Ryan told reporters Monday, adding that there was “no information to suggest” that this virus variant is more deadly or more easily spread between humans.
Viruses like COVID-19 constantly mutate as they spread between humans, and scientists say most mutations have little impact on human disease.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical leader on COVID-19, said the agency “had no evidence that this variant behaves differently” and that it was similar to a variant initially reported in mink in Europe. She said scientists would study the new variant further to see if there could be any difference in how it triggered an immune response in humans.
Local officials in some London boroughs had already advised schools to close and switch to online learning as the coronavirus spread. On Sunday, officials in Greenwich, south-east London, said the municipality was experiencing “exponential growth” in cases, now with the highest number of infections since March.
London Mayor Sadiq Kahn has suggested that the Conservative government is asking all high schools and colleges in London to close early for Christmas due to outbreaks among students aged 10 to 19 years old.
The tighter restrictions will further blow the West End’s restaurants, pubs and famed theaters, which just reopened for business during the busy Christmas season following a four-week national lockdown lifted on December 2.
“We’ve put so much money into restocking – that’s where my heart is bleeding a bit,” said Clover Eziashi, who runs the Lounge Brixton restaurant and bar. “We’re getting ready for Christmas, what are we going to do with all this stock?”
On Sunday, Italy surpassed Britain to become the country with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus deaths in Europe, but both have more than 64,000 deaths each, according to Johns Hopkins University. Experts say those numbers are still underpinning the virus’s impact, due to limited testing and missed cases.
AP medical writer Maria Cheng contributed from Toronto.
Follow AP’s reporting at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak