Record of scientists' meeting with PM on Friday reveal dire warnings that prompted sudden lockdown.
Cases of the new mutation of Covid grew “exponentially” during the November lockdown, minutes from the Government’s Nervtag committee reveal, in papers which suggest Tier 4 measures may not be able to stop its march.
Records of their meeting last Friday detail the scientific findings which led the Prime Minister to order sweeping restrictions.
As well as suggesting that the new variant is 71 per cent more transmissible than the previous strain, the analysis suggests that the infectiousness could push up the R by as much as 0.93.
Overall, scientists from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded that the new variant could mean “an absolute increase in the R-value of between 0.39 to 0.93”.
But they warned that any estimates of the frequency of the variant – VUI-202012/01 – “may be underestimates” as the strain is difficult to sequence. The paper warned: “It was noted that VUI-202012/01 has demonstrated exponential growth during a period when national lockdown measures were in place.”
Concerns about the threat posed by the new variant, which has fuelled soaring cases of Covid in London and the South East, led the Prime Minister to introduce a new “Tier 4” for such parts of the country, complete with orders to “stay home”.
But the documents suggest that such restrictions may not be able to hold back the spread of the virus, nor further mutations, given that the national lockdown did not hold them at bay.
Scientists said on Sunday that it will take at least two weeks to be able to show that the vaccine protects against the new strain, but said there was every reason to think it will.
The paper also warns that “work is ongoing to evaluate the ability of Lateral Flow Devices” to detect the variant.
Such tests are being widely rolled out across the country, especially in virus hotspots, but there has already been concern about their accuracy rates.
The paper also said “few cases” of the new variant had been reported internationally, but noted that other countries have lower sequencing capability than the UK.
Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, said the Government was alerted to the findings on Friday, prompting the Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday.
She said the research also showed that those with the variant had a “higher viral strain” though this did not so appear to suggest it made them more ill, simply more contagious – reiterating calls for the public to “adhere to the new restrictions.”
Dr Hopkins said the strain had now been detected in every part of the country, so far with “very small numbers” as well as in Scotland and Wales.
And she urged those who fled areas shortly before they became Tier 4 to now stay home for 10 days to stop the spread of the new variant across the country.
“I hope that when they go to wherever they're moving to that they reduce their social contacts and don't contact anyone outside their household for the next 10 days as that will help minimise the risk of transmission to other parts of the country. We know that what we're trying to do is prevent more spread and rapid increases across the rest of the country,” she said.
“This virus will not transmit unless we're in contact with each other. And really close contact indoor spaces, reduce ventilation all helped drive the transmission of this virus, no matter what variant it is, and it becomes even more important that we all follow the rules to reduce the transmission of this variant,” Dr Hopkins added.