A new variant of coronavirus is under investigation in the UK, as fears grow around the Indian strain derailing the country’s emergence from lockdown.
Health officials confirmed on Thursday that a variant first detected in Thailand had been found in the UK – but it was unclear whether the strain was more infectious or dangerous.
Public Health England (PHE) said the variant was imported from Egypt – a country, like Thailand, on the UK’s amber list.
There have been 109 cases of the C.36.3 variant found so far – and scientists will carry out tests to determine whether it reaches the threshold of being a ‘variant of concern’.
Scientists revealed that investigations into the new strain began on Monday, ‘on the basis of the mutation profile and increased importation from a widening international area.’
Officials said the variant had been ‘dispersed across the country’, but did not reveal where the cases had been found.
In a statement published on its website, PHE said: ‘There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease or renders the vaccines currently deployed any less effective. PHE is carrying out laboratory testing to better understand the impact of the mutations on the behaviour of the virus.
‘All appropriate public health interventions will be undertaken, including additional contact tracing and targeted testing.
‘Where cases have been identified, additional follow-up of cases, testing of contacts and if required targeted case finding will limit its spread.’
The Government has faced widespread and sustained criticism for not forcing all arrivals to quarantine in a hotel, with countless cases being imported from abroad.
Cases of Covid-19 are now rising again in the UK, with ministers repeatedly referring to a ‘race’ between variants and vaccines, and the daily total on Thursday the country’s highest since April 12.
The Thai variant’s emergence follows that of the ‘Yorkshire variant’, a ‘triple mutant’ strain, which was looked into after 49 cases were detected – less than half that of the version originally detected in Thailand.
One key scientist, Professor Neil Ferguson, warned on Thursday that the June 21 reopening now hangs in the balance following the rise of the more infectious Indian variant.
He added: ‘The key issue as to whether we can go forward is: will the surge caused by the Indian variant – and we do think there will be a surge – be more than has been already planned in to the relaxation measures?’
At a Downing Street press conference this evening, Mr Hancock said: ‘The latest estimates are that more than half and potentially as many as three-quarters of all new cases are now of this (Indian) variant.’
Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories like this, check our news page.
MORE : Lawyer says Dominic Cummings’ assault ‘confirms worst fears’ on Covid response
Get your need-to-know
latest news, feel-good stories, analysis and more