England COVID Mutation 'Out of Control' Health Secretary Says

A new strain of coronavirus is "out of control" in parts of southern England, the U.K. health secretary has warned, adding that it has also been found as far away as Australia.

Matt Hancock made the comments the day after a stricter lockdown was announced for London and surrounding areas following scientists confirming the existence of a new variant of the virus that could be up to 70 percent more transmissible.

Speaking on Sunday morning political shows, Hancock said that people needed to act as though they have the virus in order to stop it spreading.

"Unfortunately this virus, the new strain, was out of control, we've got to get it
under control and the way we can do that, the only way you can do that is by restricting social contact and essentially—especially in tier 4 areas—everybody needs to behave as though they might well have the virus," he told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

He repeated the assertions on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show a short while later.

#Marr: Is the coronavirus under control?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock: "No. It's not. The new variant is out of control"https://t.co/gxUy3acCro pic.twitter.com/IWYQ2fKVOW

— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) December 20, 2020

How far the new variant has spread is currently unknown, though the health secretary told Sky News it had been discovered in other countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, on the other side of the planet to Britain.

The mutation, known as N501Y, means the new strain can spread faster, however, scientists say it does not appear to be deadlier and could still be stopped by vaccines.

On Friday, public health officials in South Africa said a new strain was driving a second wave of infections there. Scientists have said the strain is similar to the one found in the U.K.

"There's no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness," U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said when announcing the new lockdown for more than 16 million people. "There's no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant.

England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the World Health Organization had been made aware of the new variant and the situation was being monitored.

"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 under way to confirm this," Whitty said on Saturday.

"Given this latest development, it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission."

There has been a sharp uptick in the number of people testing positive for the virus in the U.K. in recent weeks. At the same time, hospitalizations and deaths have also begun to increase.

London hospitals have been stretched by the sharply rising COVID cases. Earlier this week, Whipps Cross Hospital in northeast London, declared a critical incident, before University College London (UCL) hospital, in central London, announced an "internal incident" because it had "insufficient capacity now for emergency and COVID patients, with patients waiting for admission".

Only Italy has a higher death toll from the pandemic, according to a New York Times database.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock
U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock hosts a remote press conference to update the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in London, England, on December 14. Hancock has said the new strain of coronavirus is "out of control" in parts of England. Tolga Akmen/Getty