What should the UK do now? Experts on responses to the new Covid variant

By Nicola Davis

Despite the UK’s much-vaunted vaccination programme, and scientists’ ever-growing understanding of Covid-19, Britain and the rest of the world face the challenge of a new, potentially more transmissible variant just a month before Christmas.

While Sajid Javid, the health secretary, announced the red-listing of six southern African countries and said “we must act with caution”, he ruled out immediate new Covid measures including triggering winter plan B – which would involve working from home, mask-wearing and Covid passports.

So what should the UK do in the short term and what is the chance of fresh restrictions? Prof Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh said travel measures might buy time but, as they could not prevent the arrival of B.1.1.529 in the UK, the key was what was done with the time bought.

“The priority must be to establish whether B.1.1.529 really does pose a significant threat to public health. If it does then we have a suite of tools available to lessen its impact,” he said.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, is among experts backing an increase in precautions now, saying this would also limit flu and the spread of the dominant delta variant of Covid as people started gathering in groups in the winter.

Prof Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said that while more information was needed about the new variant, “we can’t afford to wait”. Local lockdowns in areas where the variant was found could be necessary to reduce its spread, he said.

“The greatest concern at the moment is that, because [B.1.1.529 is] so different, vaccines will be less effective at preventing infection. And without direct evidence that it is less deadly, it would mean any introduction into the UK would require measures, at the very least at a fairly large local level,” he said.

Stopping the variant entering the UK could be a means to avoid such measures “and that means we should be prepared to extend the red list rapidly and generously if needs be”, he said.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the appropriate response was hard to gauge but alongside red-listing countries, genomic surveillance – decoding the genome of virus samples – was key.

“We have very good genomic surveillance in place but the recent relaxation of testing post-travel, [for example] no longer requiring PCR tests after return, may limit the speed with which the new variant entering the country is detected,” she said.

But Prof Adam Finn of the University of Bristol, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said until there was more clarity on distribution and transmission of the new variant, there was “not much else to do at this point”. Evidence was needed on whether it did indeed escape immune responses, he said, but tweaking the vaccine would take time.

Experts have previously suggested the process could take six months. “Vaccines can be modified relatively rapidly but they then additionally need to be produced at scale, delivered and administered,” said Ghani. In other words, it is unlikely the UK will be able to rely on new jabs to tackle the variant in the short term at least.