A new variant of the COVID-19 virus was first detected in September. In November, it made up around a quarter of coronavirus cases in London. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December. As a result, the UK government announced on Saturday 19 December that a new tier, tier four, would be implemented across London and the South East of England. What does this new variant mean for the UK and how will it affect your Christmas plans? Here’s everything you need to know.
Three main aspects of this variant are attracting attention. First, it is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus. Secondly, it has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important. And thirdly, some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells.
While it is said to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible, there is no evidence that it is more deadly. Furthermore, there is also no proof to suggest that it reacts differently to vaccines.
It is this uncertainty that led the UK government to implement tier four this weekend, as all of the aspects seen in this variant come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily. However, according to the BBC, new strains can become more common simply by being in the right place at the right time—such as London, which had only tier two restrictions until recently.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the variant may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible, which may be increasing the R number by 0.4. The variant can be found across the UK, except Northern Ireland, but it is heavily concentrated in London, the South East and eastern England. Cases elsewhere in the country do not seem to have taken off.
Data from Nextstrain, which has been monitoring the genetic codes of the viral samples around the world, suggest cases in Denmark and Australia have come from the UK. The Netherlands has also reported cases. A similar variant that has emerged in South Africa shares some of the same mutations, but appears to be unrelated to this one.
France suspended all travel links, including freight lorries, with the UK for 48 hours from midnight on Sunday. Thousands of lorries move between the countries every day. Eurotunnel said it would suspend access to its Folkestone terminal for traffic heading to Calais. People booked to travel on Monday can get a refund. Trains will still run from Calais to Folkestone.
As queues grow in Kent, Boris Johnson is due to chair a Cobra emergency response meeting to discuss the issue today and the French government said today that it will establish a protocol “to ensure movement from the UK can resume.”
Other countries took different action against the virus. Denmark suspended flights from the UK for 48 hours beginning on Monday morning. The Netherlands is banning all passenger flights from the UK until 1 January “at the latest.” Ferry passengers arriving from the UK will also be barred, although freight will continue.
In the Republic of Ireland, flights arriving from Britain are banned for 48 hours at least from midnight on Sunday and people have been asked not to “travel to Ireland, by air or sea.” Ferry crossings for freight will continue. In Germany, planes from the UK have not been allowed to land since midnight on Sunday, although cargo is exempt.
Belgium halted flights and trains from the UK from midnight for at least 24 hours while Italy blocked all flights from the UK until 6 January. Turkey has temporarily banned all flights from the UK as has Switzerland. Austria will ban flights from the UK from Monday evening and anyone arriving in the country before that point must quarantine for 10 days. Bulgaria has suspended flights to and from the UK from midnight on Sunday with the ban to continue until 31 January.
Canada has suspended entry of all passenger flights from the UK for 72 hours, effective from midnight on Sunday. Passengers who arrived in Canada from the UK on Sunday would be “subject to secondary screening and enhanced measures, including increased scrutiny of quarantine plans,” it said.
India is suspending flights from the UK from midnight on Tuesday until 31 December. Hong Kong, Israel, Iran, Croatia, Morocco and Kuwait brought in restrictions on UK travel. In Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru all banned flights from the UK, and Saudi Arabia has suspended all international flights for one week because of the pandemic.
European Union member states are currently meeting in Brussels to discuss a coordinated response.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in the UK rose by 35,928 on Sunday – nearly double the number recorded seven days previously. And it was announced that a further 326 people died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the nation’s total to 67,401.
After millions of people across the UK saw their festive plans severely restricted or scrapped due to the introduction of tier four, the government pledged to provide refunds for rail and coach tickets bought for the Christmas travel window between 23 and 27 December.
Tier four, which has been introduced from Saturday night in areas including London, Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire, means that the planned relaxation of COVID rules for Christmas has been scrapped for large parts of south-east England and cut to just Christmas Day for the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.
Those in tier four cannot mix indoors with anyone not from their household. Furthermore, a stay-at-home order has been issued, with exemptions for those who have to travel to work or for education. Social mixing will be cut to meeting one person in an open public space, unless you live with them or they are part of your existing support bubble.
All non-essential retail will have to close, along with hairdressers, nail bars, indoor gyms and leisure facilities and people elsewhere will be advised not to travel into a tier-four area. The restrictions will last for two weeks, with the first review due on 30 December.
During his announcement, Johnson acknowledged it was “unquestionably a difficult moment” in the coronavirus crisis but insisted that things would be “radically different” by Easter due to the vaccine. He did not confirm whether police would be told to stop people travelling home over the festive period or knock on doors on Christmas Day.
If you planned on waiting until the last minute to buy your loved ones Christmas presents and are now based in tier four, you will, unfortunately, have to shop online for those as all non-essential retail stores have had to shut on Sunday 20 December. But what about food shopping for your Christmas meal?
On Monday 21 December, Britain’s second-biggest supermarket, Sainsbury’s, warned gaps may start to appear on shelves within days after France’s ban on freight from the UK. The store said there would be shortages on products including lettuce, salad leaves and cauliflowers if transport ties with the continent are not restored quickly.
Its warning echoed a statement from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which said that fresh food supplies face “serious disruption” over Christmas. While France has not banned lorries from travelling into Britain, the worry is that hauliers will not want to enter the country if they cannot then go back home.
In a statement, Sainsbury’s said, “We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports.”
While we await more information on potential changes on regulations from France and Jonhson’s Cobra emergency response today, we advise shoppers not to panic buy—retailers will be making every effort to ensure there is stock within the system, including fresh produce, and it is important that we remember that inbound traffic still has access to the UK.