The new strain of Covid-19 that has spread across the south-east of England is “everywhere now” but could be slowed by Tier 4 restrictions, one of the country’s leading scientists has said.
Professor Neil Ferguson told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that the UK could see a possible “flattening of the curve" due to schools and many workplaces closing over Christmas.
It comes the day after the UK reported a record daily increase in cases.
Prof Ferguson, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory group (NervTag), said: “Schools are now shut, we are in a near-lockdown situation across the country.
“Contact rates are lower over Christmas.
“I expect, though I hesitate to make any sort of predictions, we will see a flattening of the curve in the next two weeks. We will see at least a slowing of growth.
“The critical question is what happens in January and the extent we want to make public health measures more uniform across the country if the new variant is everywhere.”
Prof Ferguson said there was merit in restricting travel across the UK, despite the virus’ apparent omnipresence.
He told the committee: “To some extent, every little helps.
“Christmas is associated with a lot of travel around the country, so restricting that does help you prevent the situation of suddenly increasing the frequency of the virus.
“It’s everywhere now, we can’t stop it, but it’s still beneficial to not let it jump up dramatically because we are letting people move around.”
The committee was also told there were a number of possible reasons why the mutant variant of the virus appeared to be spreading faster than others.
Professor Peter Horby, chair of Nervtag, said: “The underlying mechanism is not fully clear – it could be because the virus replicates faster, which means you get higher viral loads which means you are more infectious.
“It could be that it takes a shorter time between being exposed and being infectious – if that timeframe shortens you get quicker transmission.
“Or it could mean the duration of infectiousness is longer.”
He added scientists were still exploring whether the new mutant coronavirus strain could sidestep immunity caused by vaccine or prior infection.
He said: “What we don’t know yet is if there’s any difference in the severity of disease, the age distribution of cases, or most importantly whether there is any immune escape.”
Prof Horby also said the strain likely started from one person in Kent, and could have been caused by “random errors” when the virus copies.