South African Covid variant may make vaccines 50 per cent less effective, claims Matt Hancock

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Charles Hymas
·4 min read
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Matt Hancock said the UK could be sent 'back to square one' without tough travel restrictions - Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Matt Hancock said the UK could be sent 'back to square one' without tough travel restrictions - Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The South African Covid variant could make current vaccines 50 per cent less effective, Matt Hancock has claimed.

In video footage of a webinar with travel agents, the Health Secretary warned that the importation of the variant could ruin Britain's vaccination drive and send the country "back to square one" without tough travel restrictions.

Mr Hancock is among a number of ministers pushing for tougher travel restrictions modelled on Australia and New Zealand, which have closed their borders to non-residents and require all returning nationals to quarantine in Government-approved hotels.

Speaking ahead of a Cabinet Covid-O Cabinet meeting at which ministers will consider similar UK border closures and quarantine hotels, Mr Hancock admitted that the data showing the South African variant reduced vaccine efficacy by 50 per cent was not certain "so I wouldn’t say this in public".

He added: "Nevertheless, if you vaccinate the entire population and then you get in a new variant that evaded the vaccine, then you'd be back to square one. And so tougher international restrictions are the price that, for instance, Australia has paid for stronger domestic protection, as in more life getting back to normal domestically."

The South African strain – called B.1.351 – has key mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear might make it difficult for the immune system to recognise. These alterations open the door to it being resistant to vaccines, which train the body to spot the spike protein, or to natural immunity from previous infection.

However, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific officer, played down Mr Hancock's concerns and said it was "too early" to know what effect the strain would have on the vaccination.

He pointed out that even the data suggesting the Kent variant was 30 per cent more deadly was based on just one paper, when others showed no increase and said: "What we could end up with is that the current vaccines still protect to a large degree against severe disease and dying."

At a Downing Street press conference, however, Boris Johnson indicated that the Government could still toughen travel restrictions. Asked whether he would close the borders, the Prime Minister said: "I really don't rule out that we might take further measures. We may need to go further to protect our borders."

He said the UK did not want to put its vaccination success "at risk by having a new variant come back in".

Cabinet "hawks" – Priti Patel, Mr Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove – are pressing for tougher measures modelled on Australia and New Zealand, while the "doves", including Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, fear severe economic damage from such moves.

The Covid-O committee will consider options including closure of the borders, "quarantine hotels", at which travellers would have to pay a share of the costs, and forcing people to self-isolate for the full 10 days by scrapping the opportunity to test and release on the fifth day.

The Government is already in talks with hotel groups including IHG, which owns Holiday Inns, to house quarantining passengers. Ministers will also consider requiring by law that quarantining passengers download a location tracking app to boost compliance.

The moves are allied to an enforcement blitz by Ms Patel, who has ordered Border Force officials to check that every passenger coming into the UK has negative Covid tests taken within 72 hours of departure and locator address forms so they can be traced by health officials and police.

It will mean 15,000 arrivals will be stopped each day and checked, with those without proper paperwork facing £500 fines. Some 320 have been fined since checks started ramping up on Monday. Airlines also face £2,000 fines for any passenger they bring in without the right documentation.

The move is a significant stepping up of enforcement after criticism that the previous "soft touch" regime of checking just one in 10 arrivals' locator forms is not fit for purpose in face of the raised threat from the new Covid variants.