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Sage Advisers Warned It Is "Likely" There Are Undetected Cases Of South African Covid Variant

Travellers from high-risk countries will be forced in quarantine.

3 min read

Boris Johnson reportedly overruled his leading scientific advisers following their warnings that only a mandatory quarantine of all new passengers arriving in the UK would help slow the spread of new variants of the virus.

Ministers announced last month that passengers arriving from 30 so-called "high risk" countries would be forced into mandatory quarantine in hotels for a period of 10 days after arriving in the UK following the discovery of new high-risk strains.

But according to The Times, scientists had urged Mr Johnson a week before the policy was announced that only a full quarantine plan would help stop the spread of the dangerous new variants.

The group warned that "reactive, geographically targeted" bans could not be "relied upon to stop importation of new variants" because of a "lag" between new variants emerging and them being identified, as well as the risk of "indirect travel" to the UK.

It comes after 105 new cases of the South African variant were detected in the UK, including among 11 who had not recently travelled, prompting fears the virus was now spreading among communities.

Speaking to the BBC's Today programme, Professor Calum Semple, a consultant in respiratory medicine and SAGE advisers, said it was likely there were further cases that had not been detected.

"The challenge here is that the mutations associated with this virus can also occur spontaenously within the existing circulating virus, and that is going to be a challenge going forward as this virus attempts to become more adapted to humans," he said.

He warned there was an "inevitability" that the more dangerous mutations would occur in other strains of the virus, but said travel bans were important in helping suppress the virus while the vaccine was being rolled out.

"It is incredibly important to snuff it out where you can, and seek it out where you can and use that time of suppression to maximise vaccination within the population," he said.

"But there is an inevitability with these viruses, and especially with these mutations we are now seeing arising spontaneously in Brazil and with the South African strain.

"But the mutation of most concern, what we call the E484K, has also occured spontaneously in the new Kent strain...

He added: "That and the other mutations with occur in time, but it is very important to take every opportunity to catch the so-called South African variant, suppress it, keep it down and allow the vaccine schedule to get ahead of it."

Pressed on whether he believed the government's current plans went far enough to halt the spread, he said it was a "much harder decision" to close the borders entirely, adding that "in general I do support restricting movement, particualry of people, at this time."

He added: "You can't do it all together when you have a country which is dependent on imports for food and other essential processes... but a significant reduction in the movement of people is incredibly important."

The Times reported that Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock had backed the Sage advice to close the borders entirely after the scientists claimed it was the only strategy which would "get close" to halting the spread.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Hancock announced new "surge testing" would be rolled out in postcodes in which the South African variant had been detected in a bid to identify new cases.

But responding to the reports, Labour's shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: "These revelations are incredibly serious.

"Ministers have knowingly left the UK border open and potentially exposed people to new strains of the virus, in direct contradiction of their own government scientists' advice.

"This puts the gains of the vaccine at risk, with diastrous consequence for people's lives.

"The home secretary needs to come to parliament urgently and reverse this reckless policy of leaving our Borders unlocked and open to further risk."

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