The health secretary said the variant was a “very significant problem” since it has been associated with a higher viral load of Covid-19 – possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission.
“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “This is a very, very significant problem ... even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”
John Bell, regius professor of medicine at University of Oxford, who sits on the government’s vaccine taskforce, said on Sunday there was a “big question mark” as to whether the vaccines currently being rolled out would work on the South African variant.
The government adviser told Times Radio he believed the South African variant was more concerning than the UK one “by some margin” and said he believed it was already in the UK “at very low levels”.
However, Professor Bell also said it was "unlikely” the mutation would make vaccines entirely ineffective, and it should be possible to tweak existing vaccines in around four to six weeks. “Everybody should stay calm – it’s going to be fine,” he said.
ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, claimed on Monday that government scientists were not fully confident that vaccines will work on a new variant of the coronavirus found in South Africa – citing an unidentified adviser.
“According to one of the government’s scientific advisers, the reason for Matt Hancock’s ‘incredible worry’ about the South African Covid-19 variant is that they are not as confident the vaccines will be as effective against it as they are for the UK’s variant,” Mr Peston tweeted.
Mr Hancock warned the new UK variant first identified in the south of England was “much easier to catch” than the original version of the virus, but would not commit to tougher national measures or school closures. “We don’t rule anything out,” he added.
Mr Hancock also insisted the NHS would be able to deliver two million doses of the coronavirus vaccine per week if it receives enough supplies. “If the NHS needs to go faster, then it will go faster. If there were two million doses a week being delivered, then the NHS would deliver at that speed,” he told BBC Breakfast.
The health secretary said the “bureaucracy” involved in signing up to be a volunteer vaccinator is being reduced. “I’ve been working with the NHS on that. For instance, there’s one of the training programmes about needing to tackle terrorism. I don’t think that’s necessary – we’re going to stop that.”
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