Boris Johnson will address the nation later today at a press conference after summoning the cabinet to discuss rising concerns over increasing cases of coronavirus infections in England.
With just days remaining until a relaxation of rules for Christmas gatherings, the prime minister is expected to address the latest situation and a new variant of the virus alongside professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance.
In recent weeks, London has seen surging rates of Covid-19 transmissions.
However, the health secretary stressed there was no evidence to suggest it would cause a more serious disease, adding it was “highly unlikely” to impact the vaccine the NHS began administering to patients in priority groups last week.
Ahead of Mr Johnson’s address, professor Whitty said: “As announced on Monday, the UK has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England’s genomic surveillance.
“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.
“We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.
“There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this. Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission.”
Sir Mark Walport, a member of the the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies told BBC Newsnight the new variant appeared to have a “transmission advantage”.
“We know that this is a new variant, it has been seen in other countries but it seems to be quite widespread which suggests that it has got a transmission advantage,” he said. “It does definitely seem possible that this transmits more easily.”
“It is a very difficult, finely-balanced judgment. The biggest worry is what happens indoor in family gatherings and that’s where the risks do increase,” he said.
“They have to respond to what is happening on the ground. I think they can be clearer about what is and isn’t advisable because it would be an enormous tragedy if we had a spike in deaths at the end of January/February because we took our foot off the pedal this close to having a vaccine.”