UK scramble to trace Brazilian variant carrier as experts warn Covid lockdown roadmap threat

Joe Murphy,Sophia Sleigh and Ross Lydall
·4 min read
Testing staff hand out kits to motorists attending a surge testing centre at the Science Park, Emersons Green, in Bristol, Gloucestershire (PA)
Testing staff hand out kits to motorists attending a surge testing centre at the Science Park, Emersons Green, in Bristol, Gloucestershire (PA)

The hunt has intensified for an unknown carrier of a new Brazilian mutation of Covid-19 as scientists warned that if it takes hold it could undermine the roadmap out of lockdown.

“There is always a risk that we might have to go backwards,” said epidemiologist Professor Graham Medley, one of the Sage group of scientists who advise the Government.

Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director at Public Health England, said the risk of the new variant spreading “starts to increase” when schools go back next Monday.

It was revealed on Sunday that six cases of the new Manaus variant of coronavirus, which is more contagious and may be more resistant to vaccines, have been found in Britain, three in England and three in Scotland.

Questions were raised over how the variant from the Brazilian city was identified in a Covid-19 test of someone who did not fill in a registration form with their name and details.

In a round of interviews, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccinations minister, admitted that the Government had no idea who the carrier is, where they live, whether the carrier had travelled to Brazil or not, or were self-isolating or potentially spreading the virus.

He appealed to anyone who took a test at home on around February 12 or 13 and did not get a result back to get in touch immediately by dialling 119.

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, said the case “highlights failures in quarantine policy”, saying Sage had warned of such an event.

“Were this variant to spread into the community, the real worry is that… if this variant is more resistant to vaccines than other variants it could potentially increase in frequency alongside vaccine roll-out,” she said.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told the Standard: “The Home Secretary has serious questions to answer including: why there was such a delay in putting in place the limited hotel quarantining system in the first place.

“They also need to confirm what assessment has been made of risks of transmission while travelling, including on indirect flights into the UK and subsequent internal connecting flights and when passing through airports.”

In other key developments:

- Almost 800,000 people have received their second doses of the vaccine as ministers promise March will be a “very big month” for the roll-out.

Testing staff hand out kits to motorists attending a surge testing centre at the Science Park, Emersons Green, in Bristol on February 9PA
Testing staff hand out kits to motorists attending a surge testing centre at the Science Park, Emersons Green, in Bristol on February 9PA

- Andrew Lloyd Webber announced rehearsals for his upcoming musical Cinderella had started following the Government’s road map announcement last week.

- Rail passengers in England and Wales have been hit by above inflation fare rises with ticket prices increasing by around 2.6 per cent despite the collapse in demand.

- Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been warned that the economic impact of lockdown on women is being “overlooked”. More than 60 female MPs and business leaders are calling on the Chancellor to cut VAT for hair and beauty salons and extend the business rates holiday to the end of the pandemic.

-Home Secretary Priti Patel is expected to announce life sentences for people smugglers in a bid to crack down on Channel crossings.

- The first jabs under the UK-backed Covax initiative for developing countries were due to take place in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. Some 504,000 doses of the Oxford vaccine were ready.

With the first steps on the roadmap to recovery from the pandemic due in just one week, Professor Medley told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is a variant of concern but we are going to be faced with these in the next six months as we move towards relaxing measures — there are going to be challenges on the way — and there is always a risk that we might have to go backwards, and what nobody wants to do is to actually open up and then have to close down again.”

Dr Hopkins said the new variant, officially called P1 but named Manaus after the city where it was found, was similar to the variant from South Africa. Data showed people who previously had coronavirus were reinfected with it.

Coronavirus tests are handed out to residents in Bramley Green, Hampshire, during a surge testing programme after a case of the South African variant of Covid-19 was identified in the villagePA
Coronavirus tests are handed out to residents in Bramley Green, Hampshire, during a surge testing programme after a case of the South African variant of Covid-19 was identified in the villagePA

“We haven’t detected it in any individual who hasn’t had a history of travel or had contact with travel yet, so that is good news,” she told Today.

Professor Medley said a “bigger challenge” may be the emergence of deeper regional variations in infection levels, which would put a strain on Boris Johnson’s decision to go for a national strategy rather than return to regional tiers.

Imperial College expert Professor Danny Altmann told Times Radio the level of worry should be: “Somewhat worried but not total panic.”Mr Zahawi defended the UK’s border controls, when asked if the Government had “dithered” on hotel quarantine.

“I would say to you that the border controls that we have are pretty stringent.”

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