The first cases of a “concerning” coronavirus variant first detected in Brazil have been found in the UK, prompting urgent calls for the government to fix “holes” in its border strategy.
Public Health England (PHE) said on Sunday six cases of the variant, which may spread more rapidly and may not respond as well to existing vaccines, had been found. Three of the cases were identified in England and three in Scotland.
The infections have triggered emergency testing in Gloucestershire, where two of the cases were found, and criticism of the UK government’s hotel quarantine policy.
Two cases of the variant, known by scientists as P1 and first detected in the Brazilian city of Manaus, are from one household in South Gloucestershire with a history of travel to Brazil.
They are not thought to be linked to the third individual, whose whereabouts is unknown as Public Health England (PHE) said the person did not complete their test registration card to provide follow-up details.
Anyone who took a coronavirus test on 12 or 13 February and has not yet received a result, or has an uncompleted test registration card, has been asked to come forward immediately.
The Scottish government said three residents who returned to northeast Scotland from Brazil, via Paris and London, subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.
The tests, completed in early February, were passed to the UK’s sequencing programme and were identified as being the Manaus variant. Officials are contacting the other passengers on their flight from London to Aberdeen.
The cases are not thought to be connected to the three confirmed cases in England.
Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s strategic response director for Covid-19, said: “We have identified these cases thanks to the UK’s advanced sequencing capabilities which means we are finding more variants and mutations than many other countries and are therefore able to take action quickly.
“The important thing to remember is that Covid-19, no matter what variant it is, spreads in the same way. That means the measures to stop it spreading do not change.”
The UK has informed the World Health Organisation of the cases, which have been designated “of concern” as it shares key mutations with the variant detected in South Africa.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “It is deeply concerning that the Brazil Covid variant has been found in this country. It is now vital that we do everything we can to contain it.
“But this is further proof that the delay in introducing a hotel quarantine was reckless and the continuing refusal to put in place a comprehensive system leaves us exposed to mutations coming from overseas.”
Home Affairs Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said the “troubling development shows the weaknesses in the government’s Covid border measures”.
The Labour MP added: “The Brazil variant was first identified a month before one of these cases was brought in on February 10 and many weeks after the prime minister was warned that indirect flights were a problem, yet the government delayed putting stronger measures in place.
“Even now only 1 per cent of travellers are covered by hotel quarantine, there is no testing on arrival and enforcement of home quarantine is still minimal, so there are still too many holes in the system.
“We need to know urgently how all these cases have arrived in the country and why they weren’t prevented or picked up on arrival so that lessons can be quickly learnt and policies changed to protect the vaccine programme from further cases arriving.”
Surge testing is to be rolled out in parts of South Gloucestershire in light of the new cases, with residents living in five postcode areas over the age of 16 and without Covid-19 symptoms invited to come forward for testing.
People who travel into the areas in the postcodes BS32 0, BS32 8, BS32 9, BS34 5, and BS34 6 for work or to visit someone they have formed a support bubble with are also able to have a test.
Drive-in surge testing sites will be open at Stoke Gifford Parkway Park & Ride, as well as The Mall Coach Park at The Mall Cribs Causeway from 9am on Monday.
Sara Blackmore, director of public health at South Gloucestershire Council, said: “We are keen that all South Gloucestershire residents in the postcode areas identified take part in this testing, which will help us to identify positive cases and prompt self-isolation, which helps to break the chain of transmission,” she said.
“We do recognise the challenge for residents of undertaking another additional testing programme and want to thank you in advance for your patience and support as we continue to work together to protect our communities from Covid-19.
“We are working together with local and regional health partners, Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, to deliver this swift, safe and coordinated response, with an enhanced community testing offer available to people in and around areas where this variant has been discovered.”
The surge testing is in addition to testing for people who have symptoms, and regular rapid asymptomatic testing for essential workers.
A government spokesperson said, “As we have done throughout this pandemic we will continue to take all steps necessary to protect the public and help prevent the spread of the virus, with strong measures in place at our borders.
Additional reporting by PA