Covid: Senior government scientists warn rising rates in the South East are likely linked to new variant

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

Senior government scientists have said the increasing rates of Covid-19 in the South East of England are likely to be linked to the new variant of the virus, ITV News understands.

The new strain of the virus, identified by Matt Hancock on Monday, is in all likelihood more substantially infectious than other strains we've been dealing with until now.

It may be a alarming development but one that does not surprise virologists.

Dr Simon Clarke, from the University of Reading, told ITV News' Science Editor Tom Clarke "that's what infectious agents like viruses do - they wish to produce more copies of themselves and infect people."

"The implications of transmissability is that it will infect more people or that it will be easier to infect more people."

Downing Street has said there is growing concern about this new Covid-19 variant.

They are considering new information as it comes in and whether it is necessary for tougher restrictions because there is mounting evidence that there are high transmission rates of this new strain of the virus.

Number 10 is meeting with scientists and advisors to gather more information but will not comment on individual meetings.

  • ITV News' Science Editor Tom Clarke explains what virologists have told him about the new variant

It come as scientists have said the current tier system does not go far enough to control the spread of coronavirus.

Independent Sage members said the measures are not effective enough and have varying effects in different regions.

While one member of the group, chaired by former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, said the Government was not proactive enough.

Dr Kit Yates, senior lecturer in the department of mathematical sciences at the University of Bath, said: “I think the tiers at the moment are clearly not enough.

“Tier 2 is not enough to do anything almost anywhere, Tier 3 is enough to bring cases down in some regions, but not in others.”

He added there are differences between different regions in terms of their population density and their demographics which change how people mix with each other.

Dr Yates said: “One rule isn’t going to be sufficient to bring cases down in every single region.

“I think there are other reasons why cases might be rising. Particularly at the moment I think the vaccine coming online has meant people perhaps relaxed a little bit, and have decided to let their guard down because they can see this light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think the Government’s messaging around Christmas, suggesting that it’s okay to meet up, has meant that a lot of people have relaxed, let their guard down early potentially.

“We see lots of people in crowded shopping streets, and this is clearly not going to help matters.

“I think at the moment that the tiers are just not tight enough, as well as having schools open as well as having outdoor mixing with people.

“But that’s not to say that they won’t be good enough, in a different situation.”

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Professor Gabriel Scally, president of the epidemiology and public health section, Royal Society of Medicine, claimed the Government was a “one trick pony” and all it knows is tiers.

He added: “The Government has put all its eggs in one basket, and those eggs are breaking and the country is suffering as a result.”

While Professor Susan Michie a member of Spi-B, a sub committee of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – and also a member if Independent Sage, said often the action taken was “too little too late”.

Speaking at the Independent Sage meeting on Friday, she said: “What the Government has done all the way along is too little too late – to be on the backfoot instead of the front foot.

“And so, and the whole tier system is waiting until things are very bad, and then slapping on a tier.

“And with a tier system, there’s a whole degree of confusion because it’s not part of a planned strategy.

“And because the Government is not thinking in advance and seeing what’s likely to happen, and acting to prevent things in the future, they’re always responding to what’s just around the corner.”

Pubs must stayed closed under England’s new Tier 4 rules Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

What can you do in each tier from December 2? The new rules in England at a glance:

  • Tier 1: Up to six people can meet indoors or outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm.

  • Tier 2: No mixing indoors, apart from support bubbles. Up to six people can meet outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm - but alcohol can only be served with a substantial meal.

  • Tier 3: No mixing indoors. People can only meet outdoors in limited places such as parks and public gardens. Pubs and restaurants must close, with the exception of takeaway sales.

In all tiers, non-essential shops, gyms, hairdressers and personal care services can open. People in all tiers to work from home where they can do so. Full details on what you can do in each tier here

She added: “The adherence to rules has kept pretty steady since the summer, at really quite a high level, people on the whole are wanting to do the right things, but I think are really confused about what it is they’re meant to be doing.

“I don’t think the tier system as it is, is working at the moment.”

However, Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London, said that while she agreed with what the other scientists said, tiers had been working in some places.

She explained: “Something has changed in England. Under looser restrictions in the old Tier 2 London and the South East did not actually go up that much for about four weeks in October, and early November.

“So it’s not that they’ve never worked, and the North West was coming down in Tier 3, so clearly something has changed and I don’t know what it is.

“I don’t know whether it’s a combination of behaviour, news of the vaccine, temperature, Christmas shopping, knowing that Christmas is coming – all of those things mixed together.

“But there is something going on because I am actually surprised by how badly the new tiers have been given they’re stricter than the old tiers.”

Liverpool has been placed in Tier 2 restrictions after the case rate in the city dramatically fell.

A Government spokesman said: “We strengthened the measures in the tiers, following advice from Sage, and will continue to take decisive action in areas where the virus is most prevalent. We expect areas in Tier 3 to drive down R if everyone follows the rules.

“As the latest figures show, we need to remain vigilant to keep this virus under control to protect the NHS and save lives.”