Warning mutant Covid strain could cause more UK deaths in 2021 than this year

The mutated Covid-19 strain could lead to more deaths in 2021 than the UK suffered in 2020 unless the vaccine rollout is accelerated, experts warned.

Almost 70,000 deaths have been recorded from coronavirus this year but SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) advisers think that number could be exceeded thanks to the new variant that has wrecked Christmas.

Experts believe the new strain, which first emerged in Kent, could be up to 70% more contagious than the original strain of the virus.

There is no evidence to suggest it is more deadly than the previous versions of the virus, but more cases will likely lead to more deaths.

The government's tiering local lockdown system would not be enough to contain the contagious new strain, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine asserted.

They said only a national lockdown where primary and secondary schools and universities were forced to close until February would ensure there were fewer deaths than in the first wave of the pandemic.

Experts added that this would only work if Covid-19 vaccinations were rapidly accelerated, with two million Brits getting the jab every week and presumably becoming immune to the virus.

Professor John Edmunds, Professor Sebastian Funk and Professor Rosalind Eggo, who are members of the SAGE advisory group SPI-M-O, contributed to the study about the new variant.

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They wrote: "The increase in transmissibility is likely to lead to a large increase in incidence, with Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths projected to reach higher levels in 2021 than were observed in 2020.

"Even if regional tiered restrictions implemented before December 19 are maintained.

"Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction rate (R number) to less than one, unless primary schools, secondary schools and universities are closed.

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"We project that large resurgences of the virus are likely to occur following the easing of control measures.

"It may be necessary to greatly accelerate vaccine roll out to have an appreciable impact in suppressing the resulting disease burden."

Scientists have not yet been able to confirm whether the Pfizer vaccine, which has been approved and begun to be rolled out across the UK, will work against the new variant.

But Ugur Sahin, chief executive of German biotech company BioNTech, who developed the jab, is confident that it will.

The vaccine has only been given to 500,000 people in the first two weeks of the programme, prompting warnings that the distribution needs to be speeded up.

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Oxford-AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine, which the UK has ordered 100 million doses of, is expected to be given the green light before the end of 2020.

The new strain has seen Christmas ruined for millions of Brits. Around a third of the population of England has been placed into Tier 4 restrictions, meaning they are not allowed to form Christmas bubbles.

Other parts of the country will be placed into Tier 4 on Boxing Day, although scientists say ministers are acting too slowly in waiting until after Christmas Day to make the changes.

It comes after a senior Cabinet minister spread confusion over whether the Christmas Day bubbles that remain could be axed at the last minute.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick initially refused to rule out changes to December 25 restrictions amid a surge in mutant Covid-19 cases.

But he later gave another interview claiming it was "extremely unlikely" that Christmas Day plans would be upended with less than 48 hours notice.

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