UK Covid-19 variant may be 30% more deadly, Boris Johnson says

Good evidence that vaccines continue to work against new variant, Downing St briefing hears

British prime minister Boris Johnson attends a coronavirus press conference at 10 Downing Street on January 22nd, 2021 in London, England. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson attends a coronavirus press conference at 10 Downing Street on January 22nd, 2021 in London, England. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images


The new UK coronavirus variant may be 30 per cent more deadly, Boris Johnson said on Friday as he warned of stricter travel curbs and continued lockdown measures while the infection rate remains “forbiddingly high”.

In findings that dampened hopes of the increasingly prevalent B117 variant becoming less lethal over time, researchers on the British government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded that it may increase the death rate by 30-40 per cent.

Scientists urged tighter controls, and one said the news could take the UK “back to square one”. It is also likely to increase the concerns of EU leaders, who were already considering strengthening border measures against the “British mutation”.

Addressing a Downing Street press conference on Friday, Mr Johnson struck an extremely cautious note when asked about the prospects of any imminent return to normal life, despite the rapid pace of the vaccine programme. One in 10 adults in England had been vaccinated, the British prime minister said.

“Currently, the rate of infection is forbiddingly high, and I think we have to be realistic about that,” he said. “I think we will have to live with coronavirus in one way or another for a long while to come. I think it is an open question as to when and in what way we can start to relax any of the measures. Obviously, we want to do everything we can to open up but only safely, only cautiously.”

Mr Johnson hailed the speed of vaccine delivery, with 5.4 million doses administered, putting the government on course for the February 15th deadline it set for immunising the first four priority groups. But he urged the public to continue to comply with restrictions.

The British government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, shared early evidence about the UK variant, which first emerged in south-east England in September and has become prevalent across the UK. It was a key factor in the cancellation of most Christmas socialising, and has led to travel bans around the world.

Explaining the scale of the difference, he said for every 1,000 60-year-olds infected with the new strain, perhaps 13 or 14 might be expected to die, compared with 10 in 1,000 for the original strain.The variant is also believed to be 30-70 per cent more transmissible. “There is no preferential age, it can affect anybody at any age, similarly to the original variant, the original virus,” he said.


Dr David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, said the possibility that the new UK variant was not only more contagious but also more deadly than previous variants was worrying.

“The key fact here is that all of the good work that’s been done with [the drug] dexamethasone and is being done with better treatment strategies has reduced the mortality in the UK by about a third. [If the new mortality figure is correct that] has now been lost and we are back to square one,” he said.

Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, said: “We can’t go on having these variants coming at us like this, so we do need to do something stop them.”

The briefing heard there was good evidence of vaccines continuing to work against the variant.

But there were worrying early findings in relation to other variants identified in South Africa and Brazil. Sir Patrick said they may have certain features making them less susceptible to vaccines, though there was no evidence they were more transmissible.

Earlier, footage emerged showing Matt Hancock, the health secretary, saying there was “evidence in the public domain” that the South African variant reduces vaccine efficacy “by about 50 per cent”.

In a recording of an online webinar with travel agents this week, seen by MailOnline, Mr Hancock said: “There is evidence in the public domain, although we are not sure of this data so I wouldn’t say this in public, but that the South African variant reduces by about 50 per cent the vaccine efficacy.

The news deepened a mood of pessimism in Downing Street about when lockdown restrictions could be lifted. Official figures released on Friday suggested infection rates were declining – but only very slowly. – Guardian