U.K. Warns More Deadly Strain Makes Lifting Lockdown Harder
A coronavirus warning sign in Covent Garden in London, U.K. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

U.K. Warns More Deadly Strain Makes Lifting Lockdown Harder

The U.K.’s new strain of coronavirus may be more deadly than first thought, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, as he warned again that the country faces a long wait before it can emerge from lockdown.

Speaking at a news conference Friday in London, the premier said new evidence had led the government to revise its initial view that the variant was more contagious but not more dangerous. It may be 30% more deadly than the original strain - or more, a government analysis found.

“In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first identified in London and the South East – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” Johnson said from 10 Downing Street, flanked by his top medical advisers.

U.K. Warns More Deadly Strain Makes Lifting Lockdown Harder

The government said that on average, for 1,000 men in their 60s, 13 to 14 would die if they contracted the new variant, compared to 10 for the initial strain.

The premier’s warning comes as Britain grapples with the highest death toll in Europe and battles to recover from the economic wreckage of its deepest recession in more than 300 years.

There was a glimmer of light for the U.K. in government data on Friday suggesting that the second wave of the pandemic had passed its peak.

But Johnson and his scientific advisers were clear that the rates of hospitalizations, deaths and infections remain far too high and will not allow the restrictions that have shuttered businesses to be lifted any time soon.

More Vigilance

Added to that was the warning over the increased potency of the new variant known as B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the U.K. last year and has since spread around the world.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said the new strain was not only more easy to transmit but also linked to higher mortality rates than the earlier variants in circulation in Britain.

“It’s largely the impact of this new variant that means the NHS is under such intense pressure,” Johnson said. “It’s more important than ever that we all remain vigilant and follow the rules.” There are 38,562 Covid patients in hospitals, which is 78% higher than during the first peak last April, he said.

While an initial analysis by Public Health England experts found the variant wasn’t linked to more hospitalizations or deaths, independent reviews by outside experts generated consistent, worrisome results, according to a government report.

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London found mortality was 29% to 35% higher in those infected with the variant of concern, or VOC, compared with those carrying the original strain of the virus. The University of Exeter concluded the risk was 91% higher, while a repeat analysis from Public Health England found 65% higher mortality.

“There is a realistic probability that infection with VOC B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death compared to infection with non-VOC viruses,” the report from the U.K. government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group concluded. “It should be noted that the absolute risk of death per infection remains low.”

More data will accumulate in the coming weeks -- since deaths lag infections -- that could make the analysis more robust, the group said.

Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reached out to learn more about the situation but haven’t yet seen the data or spoken to U.K. counterparts, a spokesman for the agency said in an email Friday.

In other developments Friday:

  • Johnson pledged to do “whatever it takes” to support jobs if restrictions continue into summer
  • He warned he may need to impose tougher border measures to keep mutant strains out of the U.K.
  • Officials proposed paying people to stay home in an effort to encourage more compliance with self-isolation orders
  • Data suggested lockdown is working and the pandemic may not be spreading exponentially in the U.K. any more
  • A further 1,401 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours, taking the U.K.’s total to 95,981

The premier is under pressure from within his own Conservative Party to set out his roadmap to lifting restrictions which have damaged the economy over the past year.

He’s pinning the government’s hopes on a strategy to immunize 15 million of the most vulnerable people by Feb. 15 -- and said again on Friday that the country is on course to meet that target.

There is no evidence that the vaccines being deployed in Britain are any less effective against the deadlier variant of the virus, Johnson said. But infection rates remain high, with on average, one in 35 people in London has the disease, and the figure is one in 55 nationally.

“We really can’t begin to consider unlocking until we’re confident the vaccination program is working,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be in a position where the rates are not so high that an unlocking leads to another big rebound.”

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