Why authorities and experts are concerned about the new Covid variant first identified in Botswana, ITV News Correspondent Geraint Vincent reports
Flights from six southern African countries will be suspended from midday on Friday and the nations will be added to the travel red list, following the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant which one health official called the “worst one we’ve seen so far”.
From 4am on Sunday, anyone who arrives in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe must quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days at a cost of £2,285 for one adult.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said anyone who arrives back in the UK before then should quarantine at home for 10 days and take PCR tests on days two and eight of their isolation.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid sets out the new travel rules following the discovery of a new Covid variant that he said may be twice as transmissible as the Delta variant
Anyone who has been to these countries in the last 10 days is told to take a Covid PCR test.
From midday on Friday, non-UK and Irish residents who have been in these countries in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England.
This does not apply to those who have stayed airside and only transited through any of these countries while changing flights.
The variant, formally known as B.1.1.529, was first identified in Botswana in Southern Africa on November 11 and is thought it may spread more easily than the highly-transmissible Delta variant.
"Scientists are deeply concerned about it"
Although it has not yet been detected in the UK, Mr Javid said he and scientists are "deeply concerned about it" has been declared a Variant under Investigation by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
He added: “The early indication we have of this variant is it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it."
Mr Javid said more work needed to be done to understand how concerning the variant is.
"But from what we do know, there’s a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant," he added.
Asked what the situation would mean for the UK over the coming weeks, with Christmas approaching, Mr Javid said: “We’ve got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans – the so-called Plan B.
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“But today’s announcement, this is about a new variant from South Africa – it’s been detected in South Africa and Botswana – and this is about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders.”
"It's a real reminder to us all that this pandemic is not over but this government won't hesitate to protect the progress that we have made," he added.
At the moment around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but it is expected this figure could increase as the festive period begins.
The variant has not yet been given the title “variant of concern” in the UK, but one senior UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert said: “This is the worst variant we have seen so far.”
Only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
The variant has over 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
UKHSA experts have been advising ministers on the issue and a number of scientists have expressed serious concern.
One senior scientist said: “One of our major worries is this virus spike protein is so dramatically different to the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, that it has a great cause of concern.”
Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.
The variant could eventually be given the moniker “Nu” – with the most concerning variants given names after the Greek alphabet.
What are the quarantine hotel rules and how do I book a package?
The government website says you cannot travel to the UK if you’ve been in a red list country in the previous 10 days unless you are a British or Irish national, or have residence rights in the UK.
But if you have been in a red list country in the 10 days before arriving in England you must book a quarantine hotel package before travelling. You can book it on the government website.
You will have to quarantine for 10 days and 11 nights in a government-approved hotel and take Covid tests on days two and eight.
The rules also apply to people of all ages and vaccination status.
Anyone who breaks the rules faces a fine of up to £10,000.
How much does a quarantine hotel package cost?
For one adult in one room for 10 days (11 nights) the cost is £2,285
Additional rate for one adult (or a child over 11) is £1,430
Additional rate for a child aged five to 11 is £325
The cost of the package includes transport to and from your hotel, accommodation, Covid tests and food and drink.
Where you can arrive to start mandatory quarantine in a hotel: You can only arrive in England at the following airports - carriers are not allowed to take you to any other port of entry:
London City Airport
Biggin Hill Airport