Officials are still trying to trace a mystery person who tested positive for the new Brazilian strain of coronavirus amid fears they could be ‘anywhere in the UK.’
Six cases of the P.1 variant – which is hyper-infectious and could evade vaccines – were confirmed in the UK yesterday.
Three of the cases were traced to England with another three found in Scotland. Two of the English cases were confirmed in South Gloucestershire but the third person couldn’t be traced because they hadn’t filled in their form properly.
The discovery has sparked a desperate scramble to find the infected person before they can go on to spread the variant further.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said authorities were working with the postal service to locate the person.
Asked if it is known if the person had travelled to the UK or contracted the virus here, he told BBC Breakfast: ‘We don’t. Part of the reason why we want to locate them quickly is to understand more about them and their movements.
‘They could have had a home test kit or a test kit provided to them by their local authority. But they didn’t fill in the contact details.
‘We are working with the postal service to try and get other data to try and locate them, and this appeal is a belt and braces to try and make sure we locate them as quickly as possible.’
Anyone who took a test on February 12 or 13 and has not received a result, or has an uncompleted test registration card, is being asked to come forward immediately.
Critics said the development exposed the ‘weaknesses’ in the border protections against new strains and condemned the Government for delaying toughening restrictions.
The Gloucestershire cluster was said to originate from one individual who travelled back from Brazil and arrived in London on February 10 – five days before the Government’s quarantine hotel policy came into force.
The traveller isolated at home with the rest of their household under the rules in place at the time. One member exhibited Covid symptoms before getting a test.
It is understood there were four positive tests in total in that household, two of which were confirmed with genetic sequencing to be the P.1 variant.
But officials are awaiting the results of sequencing on the outstanding two tests to see if they were infected by the strain, which tore through the Amazonian city of Manaus earlier this year.
Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace are contacting the passengers on Swiss Air flight LX318 travelling from Sao Paulo, through Zurich, and landing in London Heathrow on February 10.
Surge testing will be carried out in the Bradley Stoke, Patchway and Little Stoke areas of South Gloucestershire.
The remaining unlocated case is not believed to be linked to the others because the virus was found to have slight genetic differences.
Officials said the individual’s test was processed on February 14, so believe it is likely they took it a day or two earlier.
They believe that person is unlikely to have taken their test at one of the regional test sites, where staff can check if contact details have been provided, but it could have been a home test or from local surge testing.
The Scottish Government said three residents who returned to north-east Scotland from Brazil, via Paris and London, subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.
The tests, completed in early February, were passed to the UK’s sequencing programme and were identified as being the Manaus variant.
Officials are contacting the other passengers on their flight from London to Aberdeen.
The cases are not thought to be connected to the three confirmed cases in England.
The World Health Organisation has been informed of the cases, which have been designated ‘of concern’ as the strain shares key mutations with the variant detected in South Africa.
More work is needed but there are concerns that the existing vaccines may be less effective against the Manaus strain.
It is understood that officials became aware of the English cases on Friday and the Scottish ones on Saturday.
The chairwoman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, the Labour MP Yvette Cooper, said: ‘This troubling development shows the weaknesses in the Government’s Covid border measures.
‘The Brazil variant was first identified a month before one of these cases was brought in on February 10 and many weeks after the Prime Minister was warned that indirect flights were a problem, yet the Government delayed putting stronger measures in place.
‘We need to know urgently how all these cases have arrived in the country and why they weren’t prevented or picked up on arrival so that lessons can be quickly learnt and policies changed to protect the vaccine programme from further cases arriving.’
Stephen Crabb, Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, told the BBC that Health Secretary Matt Hancock would be holding a cross-party briefing on Monday morning to discuss the Brazilian variant cases.
Asked about how worried people should be about the Brazilian variant, Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College, told Times Radio: ‘Somewhat worried but not total panic, perhaps.
‘It’s somewhat more worrying than the UK variant, the Kent variant, that we’re used to talking about, because it covers the double whammy, we think, of being more transmissible and somewhat better at evading neutralising antibodies.’
Asked if it was impossible to keep the door shut to new variants coming in to the UK, he added: ‘It’s a really, really hard challenge. The border controls, test and trace and containment hasn’t been our biggest strength.
‘We see these variants popping up variably all over the world, so we’re just as liable to suffer from a homegrown one as an imported one. So we just need to be really on the case all the time.’
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