Police Federation boss slams 'toothless tiger' Covid laws

Police Federation boss slams ‘toothless tiger’ Covid laws saying officers WON’T knock on doors to catch Christmas rule breakers – as forces in Tier 4 rule out road blocks

  • Ken Marsh, chairman of Metropolitan Police Federation said there is ‘no way’ officers will knock on doors
  • He called Covid laws a ‘toothless tiger’ because if households refuse to open door, officers cannot gain entry 
  • Police and crime commissioner for Essex revealed that officers are replying on ‘compliance by the public’

A police federation boss has slammed ‘toothless tiger’ Covid laws and said there is ‘no way’ officers will be knocking on doors to catch Christmas rule breakers as Tier 4 officers have ruled out road blocks. 

Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said there is ‘no way’ officers will be knocking on doors of ‘normal households’ to catch rule breakers unless there is a ‘large party’ happening.

He also called Covid laws a ‘toothless tiger’ because if people refuse to open their doors to officers, they have no power to gain entry.    

While speaking on the BBC, Mr Marsh was asked whether it was a ‘tough ask’ from the government to expect officers in Tier 4 areas to police the new rules.

He said: ‘It’s not a tough ask for us because it won’t be happening. 

‘We won’t be knocking on people’s doors at all unless there is a large, large group – a party or something like that. But normal day to day households, there is no way that my colleagues will be dealing with that.’

He added that attempting to police Tier 4 rules is almost pointless because if households refuse to open the door to officers there are no laws in place to allow police to gain entry to the property. 

In other coronavirus news: 

  • Germany, France, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria suspended travel from Britain, trying to protect themselves from the new strain;
  • France also banned British freight lorries, adding to the chaos at Channel ports;
  • Mr Hancock refused to rule out the closure of schools, which are already facing delays to next term;
  • Tory sources confirmed Tier Four travel curbs mean the Prime Minister will spend Christmas in Downing Street, rather than his country retreat Chequers;
  • In a rare bright spot, the number vaccinated hit around 500,000 last night;
  • Officials voiced hopes that the Oxford jab could be approved this week;
  • Mr Hancock condemned ‘totally irresponsible’ travellers who piled on to trains out of London on Saturday night before Tier Four came in; 
  • Business leaders called for more support, amid warnings that tens of thousands of jobs could go 

A police federation boss has slammed ‘toothless tiger’ Covid laws and said there is ‘no way’ officers will be knocking on doors to catch Christmas rule breakers as Tier 4 officers have ruled out road blocks. Pictured: Officers at Kings Cross station

Police officers at Euston Station, London, with more being deployed to enforce travel rules at the capital’s stations

Wearing a protective face covering to combat the spread of the coronavirus, a member of the British Trasport Police speaks with travellers on the main concourse at Waterloo Station in London

Mr Marsh said: ‘When you’re given a toothless tiger in terms of the capacity of law then you have to work within that credence.’  

And earlier this morning, the police and crime commissioner for Essex, Roger Hirst, revealed that officers are relying on ‘compliance by the public’ when it comes to the new Tier 4 rules.  

Ken Marsh (pictured), chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said there is ‘no way’ officers will be knocking on doors of ‘normal households’ to catch rule breakers unless there is a ‘large party’ happening

When asked on Radio 4’s Today programme whether officers would be stopping people in train stations or drivers to ask them where they are going, Mr Hirst said: ‘Given that the travel itself is not the offence no we won’t. Travel itself is not the offence. And you can travel through a Tier 4 area on your way from Tier 2 to Tier 2.

‘What we will be doing is increasing the police presence so there’s more visibility but ultimately really this is down to compliance by the public. 

‘The vast bulk of the populous really want to make this work. They really understand what’s going on. Here in Essex with a population of 1.8million we’ve still had less than 10,000 engagements in total since this crisis started, only a few hundred fixed penalty notices and only a few dozen arrests. 

‘So you can see most people want to make this work.’

Their comments directly contradict Health Secretary Matt Hancock who said on Sunday that the police would stop people travelling. 

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show:  ‘Of course. I’ve spoken to the home secretary and the British Transport Police’s responsibility is to police the transport system. But I hope that this will be done by consent.”

Hancock went on to condemn those who descended on London’s train stations after Saturday’s Tier 4 announcement as ‘totally irresponsible’.  

And rail chiefs slammed the government for its last-minute announcement which led to a complete collapse of social distancing on some services. 

Videos and pictures of passengers crammed into trains at St Pancras on Saturday night revealed a public address message warning that social distancing would not be possible on the train.   

Pictured: Drivers on the A40 in Tier 4 London this morning 

Police outside Kings Cross Underground Station in London as the capital is plunged into a Tier 4 lockdown

A member of the British Trasport Police patrols the main concourse at Waterloo Station in London

Queues at Eurostar departures at St Pancras International Station in London as the capital moves into Tier 4 lockdown

St Pancras train station packed with masked passengers desperate to get home for Christmas on Saturday

East Midlands Railway said its services were running at nine per cent of normal capacity and it was given no warning that demand was about to surge. 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told The Times that British Transport Police were ‘being deployed to ensure only those who need to take essential journeys can travel safely’.

He added: ‘It is incredibly important that people follow the guidance. Stay at home. Our focus must be stopping the spread of this virus, protecting lives and our NHS.’   

Around 16million people across London and the south east were plunged into Tier 4 on Saturday, with Boris Johnson’s announcement cancelling families’ Christmas plans.

Those living in affected areas are being told to stay at home and not to travel to other areas, unless they have a legal exemption.

Queues at Eurostar departures at St Pancras International Station in London as the capital moves into Tier 4 lockdown

But senior police figures say officers have little power to enforce the latest restrictions.

Police are warning people will simply lie to officers and say they are travelling under one of the exemptions, which include work or essential travel for food.  

Rail passengers in Tier 4 areas WILL get refunds after scrapping Christmas travel plans 

Passengers in Tier 4 regions who have been forced to scrap their Christmas travel plans will get their train and coach bookings refunded, the Government announced today.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said customers will not be ‘left out of pocket’ for ‘doing the right thing’ by binning their family reunions as a ‘mutant’ strain of coronavirus spreads through the country. 

The Department for Transport (DfT) said cash refunds will be provided for cancelled rail and coach bookings in England for the previous Christmas travel window of December 23 to 27. 

Tickets will only be refunded if they were purchased between November 24 and before the travel window was amended on December 19 – meaning people who now pay for tickets and are stopped by police from leaving Tier 4 regions will not be compensated.

People who planned on flying back home are not included in the Government’s refund scheme, after major airlines including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic revealed they will not refund cancelled trips for the end of the year. 

The DfT compensation plan also does not apply to people living in areas outside of Tier 4 in England, and for people living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Mr Marsh said: ‘I would accept there is legislation put in place but as a police officer who has been doing the job for a long time, it’s not enforceable.

‘Your functionality to perform your duty is nigh on impossible if they don’t tell you the truth. If they think they are going to get a fine, they won’t tell you the truth.’ 

The comments come as masked officers patrolled major stations including King’s Cross, St Pancras, Waterloo and Euston as Londoners tried to flee the capital after the PM plunged the city and swathes of the South into a brutal Tier 4 lockdown.  

The PM slapped new draconian measures in a desperate bid to combat a surge in cases caused by a ‘mutant’ strain of coronavirus, just days after he said it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas. The extraordinary U-turn has ruined the plans of millions who intended on spending the holiday with families. 

Under the new Tier 4 rules non-essential shops – as well as gyms, cinemas, casinos and hairdressers – have to stay shut and people are limited to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.

Those in Tier 4 were told they should not travel out of the region, while those outside were advised against visiting. In the rest of England, Christmas easing has been severely curtailed, with households allowed to gather for just one day – Christmas Day itself – rather than the five days previously planned.  

Wales has also announced it is going into a full lockdown and will follow suit by slashing bubbles to a single day. Nicola Sturgeon said at her own press conference that a ban on cross-border travel is being upgraded, and the law will be changed to cut bubbles to one day.  

The move has caused chaos, with the PM facing accusations of ‘inconsistency’ after the last minute U-turn, with Tories calling for Cabinet resignations and a review of the data used to create the fourth tier. 

Mr Hancock also warned the new mutant strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’ as he suggested draconian Tier 4 restrictions could be in place ‘until we have the vaccine rolled out’. 

The Health Secretary said people in Tier 4 areas should behave as if they are infected in order to combat the new variant of the disease which spreads quicker than its predecessor.  

What are the new Tier 4 rules? 

The Tier 4 rules will be essentially the same as the blanket lockdown that England was under in November. 

Non-essential retail must close, as well as leisure facilities, and personal care such as hairdressers. 

However, places of worship can stay open. 

People in other Tiers will be advised not to go into the highest bracket areas, while residents of Tier 4 must not stay overnight in lower infection spots. 

Mr Hancock said the new strain can be caught ‘more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present’ as he confirmed areas subject to the toughest restrictions are likely to be in the top tier for the long haul. 

The Cabinet minister said ‘we have got a long way to go to sort this’ and it will be ‘very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out’.

Mr Hancock told Sophy Ridge on Sky News: ‘We don’t want to do any of this but it is necessary. This has been an awful end to what has been an incredibly difficult year and on Friday when we were presented with that new scientific evidence about the new variant it was our duty to act.

‘From being presented on Friday afternoon with the strength of how easy this new variant finds it to transmit from one human to another, we acted very quickly and decisively with the announcements that the Prime Minister set out yesterday.

‘I just think everybody watching will feel this sense that we both feel of disappointment and that it is just so difficult ahead of Christmas, which everybody was really looking forward to after all the sacrifices that have been made.

‘But unfortunately this virus, the new strain, was out of control. We have got to get it under control and the way that we can do that, the only way you can do that, is by restricting social contact and essentially, especially in Tier 4 areas, everybody needs to behave as if they might well have the virus and that is the way that we can get it under control and keep people safe.’

The Health Secretary said the new variant of the disease was more easily transmitted than its predecessor which left the Government with no choice but to act. 

He said: ‘We just know that this new variant you can catch it more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present.’ 

Tier Four until EASTER: ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson warns draconian measures may be needed for months  

By Stephen Matthews for MailOnline and Jason Groves, political editor for The Daily Mail

Professor Neil Ferguson, Imperial College London epidemiologist

Millions of families face living under draconian Tier Four restrictions until Easter, according to the scientist whose grim modelling spooked No10 into sending Britain into its first lockdown back in March. 

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College London epidemiologist who quit his role as a Government adviser after breaking rules to see his married lover, today claimed the harshest curbs could ‘possibly’ have to stay until the spring and admitted Britain was now in a race to vaccinate people.  

He warned Britain’s situation was ‘not looking optimistic right now’. It comes after Matt Hancock yesterday warned the Tier Four restrictions could be extended nationwide, after the Health Secretary said the virus was now ‘out of control’ following the emergence of a fast-spreading new variant.

Boris Johnson sparked fury on Saturday night after he cancelled Christmas for more than 16million people living in London and across the South East. Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons were ordered to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four.

In his embarrassing U-turn, the Prime Minister – who last week claimed it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas – also slashed a festive amnesty from five days to just one for the rest of the UK. 

It comes after it was revealed yesterday that Professor Ferguson played a major role in researching the variant that triggered the dramatic cancellation of Christmas. He was among those attending a meeting of Nervtag – the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – to discuss the new mutant strain on Friday.

The Imperial expert said it was now a simple race to ‘get vaccines in people’s arms’ because the virus couldn’t be stopped any other way. And a colleague of his, infectious diseases expert Professor Wendy Barclay, said it was possible that if the virus mutates enough the immunity produced by vaccines might not work, although there is no proof that this is true of the new strain.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine is being rolled out rapidly but it is complicated because it must be kept in specialist freezers. Regulators now face pressure to approve England’s own vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca – a decision is expected within the next week. Another completed vaccine by US company Moderna, which trials showed was 94.5 per cent effective, has been pre-ordered by the UK but won’t be available until the spring.

Dozens of countries have all already banned travel from Britain over fears the mutated strain of coronavirus could spread, with France last night causing chaos over the last minute decision to shut the border. Mr Johnson will hold crisis talks with Ministers today as he chairs the Government’s Cobra committee amid warnings of ‘significant disruption’ around the Channel ports in Kent. 

 

Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons have been ordered to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four. Pictured: A deserted Regent Street in central London today after restrictions came into place overnight

Tube stations and high streets were equally deserted today as London went into its first day of Tier 4 lockdown, with limits on travel outside the area and almost no shops allowed to remain open. Pictured: A lone passenger on the Bakerloo line

Discussing the prospect of the harshest lockdown measures being in place until the spring, Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The Government gets criticised for changing policy all the time.

‘This virus is unpredictable, how people behave is unpredictable, so we will track the epidemic as we always have done. Policy will be formed on the basis of that.

‘The tiers are reviewed every two weeks and will continue to be reviewed. But I certainly agree it’s not looking optimistic right now.’

Warning Tier Four measures may be extended, Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London, a member of Nervtag, told The Times: ‘It’s very unlikely anything less than really effective measures are going to control it.

‘My concern is people are not going to comply. It’s really important people appreciate the danger.’

The Health Secretary suggested other parts of the country would also be plunged into Tier Four if a significant number of cases of the mutant virus emerged.

One senior Conservative MP called for Mr Hancock to resign over the shambolic handling of the Christmas rules.

And furious Tories demanded a recall of Parliament to debate and vote on the changes to pandemic laws, which were made unilaterally by Mr Hancock in the early hours of yesterday.

Covid cases hit a daily record of 35,928 yesterday – almost double the previous week. There were also 326 deaths, up from 144 a week earlier. As the case rate in London reached 468 per 100,000, three times the level in the North West:

  • Germany, France, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria suspended travel from Britain, trying to protect themselves from the new strain;
  • France also banned British freight lorries, adding to the chaos at Channel ports;
  • Mr Hancock refused to rule out the closure of schools, which are already facing delays to next term;
  • Tory sources confirmed Tier Four travel curbs mean the Prime Minister will spend Christmas in Downing Street, rather than his country retreat Chequers;
  • In a rare bright spot, the number vaccinated hit around 500,000 last night;
  • Officials voiced hopes that the Oxford jab could be approved this week;
  • Mr Hancock condemned ‘totally irresponsible’ travellers who piled on to trains out of London on Saturday night before Tier Four came in;
  • British Transport Police stepped up patrols to stop residents leaving London and South East;
  • Scottish police doubled patrols along the border after Nicola Sturgeon imposed a ban on arrivals from England;
  • Business leaders called for more support, amid warnings that tens of thousands of jobs could go;
  • Lockdown-busting scientist Neil Ferguson has been quietly reinstated as a Government adviser and was involved in the Christmas shutdown decision;
  • A YouGov poll found 67 per cent back the Christmas curbs but 61 per cent think the Government has handled the situation badly;
  • Labour’s Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to apologise for ‘indecision and weak leadership’ over Christmas rules;
  • Wales went into lockdown for the third time, meaning 21million UK residents are now under the toughest restrictions.

Warning that the draconian lockdown could be extended nationwide, the Health Secretary said coronavirus was now ‘out of control’ following the emergence of a fast-spreading new variant

Mr Hancock yesterday said a third national lockdown was ‘not inevitable’.

But a Government source said ministers would not hesitate to extend Tier Four if necessary. ‘We need to see what the impact of Tier Four is,’ the source said.

‘The new strain is pretty widespread in London and the South East, which is very worrying, but in other parts of the country the tier system is still working. ‘If it is contained within London and the South East, that’s one thing.

‘But if people are leaving that region and potentially spreading it to the rest of the country then that is a big problem. Another lockdown is not out of the question.’

In a bid to head off a Tory mutiny, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove held seminars for MPs on the mutant Covid strain by video link.

But former chief whip Mark Harper led the demands for parliament to be recalled.

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories, accused ministers of delaying the decision to cancel Christmas until MPs had left for the festive break.

The first day of Tier 4 saw the same streets that were jam-packed yesterday evening looking like a ghost town today (Oxford Circus, pictured)

Members of the public queued to enter Waitrose in Marylebone, London, on the morning after Tier 4 restrictions came into place

Oxford Street saw a mad rush of shoppers who flocked to buy their Christmas presents before the city was plunged into Tier 4 at midnight 

He called on Mr Hancock to consider resigning, telling BBC Radio 4: ‘The Government, in my view, knew on Thursday, possibly even Wednesday, that they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited till Parliament had gone.

‘That, on top of everything else, is a resigning matter. I am not asking for the Government to collapse. I am asking for a secretary of state to take some responsibility.’

A string of his colleagues joined calls for Parliament to be recalled.

But Mr Hancock said the need to act fast had made it impossible to consult. He said there would be a retrospective vote next month.

The Government last night published minutes from Friday’s meeting of the Nervtag scientific group, whose findings persuaded the PM to lock down a third of the nation and scrap Christmas plans he had amended only two days earlier.

The committee, whose members include Professor Ferguson, warned the new strain spreads 71 per cent faster than standard Covid. 

It may also raise the R rate, and the entire purpose of lockdown rules is to bring down the R to temporarily shrink the outbreak and make it easier to control case numbers.

No measures since the spring have led to the closure of schools but they also haven’t worked as effectively, and there are signs that the new variant may lead to schools and universities being shut again in the new year. 

Professor Ferguson said on Radio 4 this morning: ‘Undoubtedly increased transmissibility limits our options for manoeuvre even more and there is a hint in the data that this variant may infect children slightly more effectively than the previous variants, though it’s very difficult to prove causality.

‘I think what we’ll see in the next two weeks, though, is that while schools are closed is, probably, all the variants of the virus in circulation at the moment declining but we’ll be tracking very carefully whether we can see differences in that rate of decline and really it’s the data that’s being put together now and, unfortunately, over the Christmas break which is going to inform policy measures in January. It’s just too early to tell.’

While the main concern is currently that the strain of the virus is more infectious than previous versions, there are still possibilities that the mutations could affect how well vaccines and immunity work.

Scientific work on the subject is still in its early stages, but the mutations are on the virus’s spike protein, which is what it uses to infect the body and is what most parts of the immune system latch onto to attack the virus.

If it mutates a huge amount, the virus could ultimately become unrecognisable to the immune system, scientists fear.

This could mean that vaccines developed already don’t work as well as they should, or that people who have already had the virus could get it again. But there is no proof yet that either of these things will happen.

Professor Wendy Barclay, an infectious diseases expert at Imperial College London, told the Today programme: ‘There are a number of those spike mutations that we think are very important for helping the virus get into the cells very quickly, so we’re rushing round trying to get evidence to support that but biologically it’s feasible that the virus could have changed the way it behaves because of those mutations.’

She explained that the mutation has made the Government’s PCR tests less able to recognise the spike, although it is able to pick up on different parts of the virus so doesn’t work any less effectively.

Professor Barclay added: ‘In terms of the vaccine, the spike protein, which does contain this combination of six mutations and two deletions, that’s quite a high number and that spike protein is the part we’re using in the vaccine.

‘The vaccine contains artificial spike which stimulates the immune response and it is indeed the part that most people make antibodies to when they recover from the virus [in a] natural infection.

‘So it is important now to understand whether or not the antibodies that we make from natural infection or vaccine are altered in their ability to see the virus in any way now that the virus has changed.’ 

QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON NEW COVID MUTATION: HOW DID IT HAPPEN, IS IT MORE DANGEROUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN IN THE UK?

By David Churchill

What has happened to the coronavirus to trigger such concern?

A new strain of Covid has developed which is said to spread far faster. A ‘strain’ is a new version of a virus which has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19.

It has been named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for ‘variant under investigation’ and the month, December 2020.

What makes it so worrying?

This particular variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It is the combination of some of these changes which scientists believe could make it more infectious.

It is thought they could help the virus’ spike protein latch on to human cells and gain entry more easily.

Is it certain the new variation is accelerating the spread of the virus?

No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it does.

Boris Johnson said it may spread up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains of the virus, potentially driving up the ‘R rate’ – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.

On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could drive up the ‘R rate’ by as much as 0.4.

This would be particularly significant in areas such as Eastern England, where it is 1.4, and both London and the South East, where it is 1.3. The ‘R rate’ must remain below 1 for infections to decrease.

Is the new variant more dangerous?

Scientists don’t think so for now. When asked on Saturday night if it was more lethal than the previous strain, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said ‘the answer seems to be ‘No’, as far as we can tell at the moment’.

Yesterday Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads inside them.

But she said this did not mean people would get more ill.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.’

If it does make the virus harder to control and hospitals become overrun, it could pose new challenges.

Are mutations unusual?

No. Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been observed in other countries, such as Spain.

However, one scientific paper suggests the number and combination of changes which have occurred in this new variant is potentially ‘unprecedented’.

Most mutations observed to date are thought to have happened more slowly. Also, most changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads.

There are already about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.

What has caused the mutation?

This is still being investigated. One theory is that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.

Another theory is that it has developed in chronically ill patients who have fought the virus off over a long period of time, with it then being passed onto others.

Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, yesterday said it was ‘plausible’ and ‘highly likely’ this has happened.

However, he stressed it is impossible to prove at the moment.

What evidence is there to support the latter theory?

Some evidence supporting it was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.

It is possible the virus mutated during that treatment, developing more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it’s also possible the mutation has occurred elsewhere.

A paper co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: ‘If antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population may be unusually large and genetically diverse…creating suitable circumstances for the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes.’

Professor Hunter added: ‘Mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.’

What do these mutations do?

Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the virus’ spike protein. This helps the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.

It is also possible the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help fight off infection.

Who detected it?

It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which carries out random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples.

It is a consortium of the UK’s four public health agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.

How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?

As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be higher.

They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London. It may now account for 60 per cent of the capital’s cases.

But it has been detected elsewhere, including in Wales and Scotland.

The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.

Why was action to tackle it not taken sooner?

Because the potentially greater transmissibility was only discovered late last week by academics.

Has it been detected anywhere else in the world?

One aspect of the new variant, known as a N501Y mutation, was circulating in Australia between June and July, in America in July and in Brazil as far back as April, according to scientists.

It is therefore unclear what role, if any, travellers carrying the virus may have had.

Dr Julian Tang, a Virologist and expert in Respiratory science at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Whether or not these viruses were brought to the UK and Europe later by travellers or arose spontaneously in multiple locations around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires further investigation.’

Another change, known as the D614G variant, has previously been detected in western Europe and North America. But it is possible that the new variant evolved in the UK.

What can I do to avoid getting the new variant?

The same as always – keeping your distance from people, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and abiding by the tier restrictions in your area.

Yesterday Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: ‘The way in which you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. It is about continuing stringent measures. The same rules apply.’

Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?

More studies are needed.

Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that until these are carried out scientists cannot be certain whether – and by how much – the new variant reduces the effectiveness of developed vaccines.

She said: ‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’ When mutations happen it is, in theory, possible the antibodies generated by vaccines can be evaded.

But vaccines produce a wide range of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus from different angles, making it hard for it to evade all of them at once.

Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation does prove to be more resistant to them.

So what are the scientists doing now?

Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.

It could take up to two weeks for this process to be complete.

 

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