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UK says new virus strain appears to spread more quickly, London gets fresh curbs

Officials stress that there is no current evidence that the new form of virus is more dangerous or responds differently to vaccines and treatments

Illustrative: Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Witty speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, in 10 Downing Street in London, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, file)
Illustrative: Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Witty speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, in 10 Downing Street in London, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, file)

LONDON — England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty confirmed Saturday that a new coronavirus strain which surfaced in the country could spread faster and called for greater public vigilance to reduce transmission.

Whitty said London had informed the World Health Organization of its findings. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a “stay at home” order for London and southeast England to slow the new strain.

The new strain of the virus “does appear to be passed on significantly more easily,” Johnson said at a televised briefing. He ordered new restrictions for London and south-eastern England from Sunday, saying that under the new “tier four” rules, “residents in those areas must stay at home” at least until December 30.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday said scientists had identified a “new variant” in the south of England that could be causing infections to spread faster.

Whitty said: “As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modeling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, [experts advising the government] now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.

“We have alerted the World Health Organization,” he said, but added: “There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this.”

A worker cleans a bus stop near Piccadilly Circus in central London on December 18, 2020. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

Whitty warned that the new evidence made it “more vital than ever” that the public did all they could to reduce transmission.

On Friday, 28,507 new daily positive tests were reported by the UK government. Cases last week grew 40.9 percent compared to a week earlier.

More than 1.98 million people have tested positive for the coornavirus in the UK.

People in Wales and Northern Ireland are set go into new lockdowns after Christmas.

Johnson has refused to rule out a new lockdown in England, saying Friday: “We’re hoping very much that we will be able to avoid anything like that.”

“But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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