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A further 50,091 cases of Covid-19 have been reported across the UK in 24 hours - the highest one-day tally in more than a month.
And 160 more people have died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, according to government figures, which takes the official total to 144,593.
But separate figures from the Office for National Statistics show there have been 169,000 UK deaths.
The daily count of infections is the highest since 21 October, when 52,009 cases were recorded in 24 hours.
Before that, the previous spike was on 17 July, when 54,674 infections were diagnosed in a day.
Experts are alarmed by the emergence of the new Covid variant detected in southern Africa, which may be more transmissible than the Delta strain and which may be more resistant to vaccines, according to health secretary Sajid Javid.
Although there are no known cases of it in the UK yet, within 24 hours of the B.1.1.529 variant being detected, the first case in Europe was recorded, in Belgium.
England’s chief medical officer has said his greatest worry is whether the public would accept fresh restrictions in the face of a new Covid-19 variant.
Chris Whitty told a panel discussion hosted by the Local Government Association that he worried whether the government could still “take people with us”.
The longer the pandemic goes on, the harder it is to know what the public’s response will be, he said.
“It’s easier to be confident of people’s response right at the beginning than it is after people put up with two years of their lives being interfered with,” Prof Whitty added.
England has put five African countries - South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe - onto its travel Red List, meaning that entry is restricted to UK and Irish nationals who go into hotel quarantine.
Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said sequencing was being carried out around the UK to determine whether any cases have already been imported.