The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is in “close contact” with UK officials over the emergence of a new variant of Covid-19. The new variant is spreading more rapidly than the original version, but is not believed to be more deadly.
Large parts of south-east England, including London, are now under a new, stricter level of restrictions in a bid to curb the rapidly spreading virus.
The WHO tweeted that it was in contact with UK officials over the new variant.
It said the UK was sharing information from ongoing studies into the mutation, and that the WHO would update member states and the public “as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant [and] any implications”.
Although there is “considerable uncertainty”, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old one.
But officials say there is no current evidence to suggest the new variant causes a higher mortality rate or that is affected any differently by vaccines and treatments.
“I think this is a situation which is going to make things a lot worse, but there are some really optimistic things if you look once we get the vaccine out, assuming the vaccine works against this, which at the moment is the working assumption,” said England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.
Meanwhile, The Netherlands has banned flights carrying passengers from the United Kingdom after Dutch authorities found the first case of the new, more infectious coronavirus strain that is circulating in England.
The Dutch government, in a statement early on Sunday, said the ban will remain in place until January 1.
“An infectious mutation of the Covid-19 virus is circulating in the United Kingdom. It is said to spread more easily and faster and is more difficult to detect,” the health ministry said in a statement.
The Dutch public health body, the RIVM, therefore “recommends any introduction of this virus strain from the UK be limited as much as possible by limiting and/or controlling passenger movements”.
The ministry said a case study in the Netherlands “at the beginning of December revealed a virus with the variant described” in t he UK.
Experts were looking at how the infection happened and whether there were related cases, it added.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet’s ordered the ban on flights from the UK as a “precautionary” measure, the ministry said, adding that the Dutch government is reviewing other modes of transport.
“Over the next few days, together with other EU member states, the government will explore the scope for further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being brought over from the UK,” it added.
The Netherlands is under a five-week lockdown until mid-January with schools and all non-essential shops closed to slow a surge in the virus.
The ban on UK flights comes after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and scientists announced on Saturday that the new strain of coronavirus identified in the country is up to 70 percent more infectious. But Johnson said the new variant is not thought to be more deadly and vaccines should still be effective.
The British prime minister also said London and southeast England, which are currently in the highest level of a three-tier system of rules, would now be placed in a new Tier 4 level, which means the planned relaxation of Covid rules for Christmas has been cut to just Christmas Day for the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.
Italy has ordered a nationwide lockdown over much of the Christmas and New Year period. The country will be under “red-zone” restrictions over the public holidays, with non-essential shops, restaurants and bars closed, and Italians only allowed to travel for limited reasons.
The Netherlands and Germany have imposed lockdowns until January. In Germany, Christmas will see a slight easing, with one household allowed to host up to four close family members.
Austria is set to enter its third lockdown after Christmas. From 26 December, non-essential shops will be shut and movement outside homes restricted.
Sweden has recommended wearing face masks on public transport during the rush hour, reversing its earlier guidance.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron is in a “stable” condition after testing positive for coronavirus, his office said on Saturday. He is still experiencing symptoms, such as coughing and fatigue, but they are not preventing him from working, it said.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Igor Matovic, who attended an EU summit with Mr Macron last week, said he had tested positive for coronavirus on Friday.
Several other European leaders who were also at the summit said they would self-isolate.