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New COVID variant: UK urgently brings in travel restrictions to stop spread of ‘the worst one we’ve seen so far’ | UK News

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Britain is bringing in travel restrictions for six African countries due to a new COVID variant that UK experts have called the “worst one we’ve seen so far”.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid tweeted: “UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) is investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now.

“Six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travellers must quarantine.”

Mr Javid said the new B.1.1.529 variant identified in South Africa “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain – and warned “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.

The UKHSA says it is the “worst one we’ve seen so far” and has a spike protein that is “dramatically” different to the original COVID strain.

The variant also has 30 mutations – twice as many as the Delta variant – and these mutations are likely to evade the immune response generated by prior infection and vaccination.

But the good news is that B.1.1.529 can be detected with a normal PCR test.

Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from 12pm on Friday – and after 4am on Sunday, new arrivals in the UK will be required to quarantine in hotels.

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‘Our scientists are deeply concerned’: Javid

Scotland and Northern Ireland have said they are also introducing the new rules.

No cases of this variant have been reported so far in the UK, and anyone who has travelled from one of these countries in the past 10 days is now being invited to come forward for a test.

About 500 to 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day at the moment, but it is expected this figure could increase in the run up to Christmas.

According to aviation analyst Alex Macheras, Virgin Atlantic had reported taking more than 32,000 bookings for South Africa in October alone – and most of them for the rest of 2021.

Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, described the mutations as “really awful” but said cases were currently “super low”.

South Africa is currently getting deliveries of vaccines faster than they can be used
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South Africa is currently getting deliveries of vaccines faster than they can be used

Spike proteins are what viruses use to get into human cells, and some vaccines work by training the body to recognise the spikes and neutralise them.

Mutations on the spike could therefore potentially prove problematic.

But with only a handful of recorded cases – three in Botswana, around 53 in South Africa and one in Hong Kong from someone who had travelled from South Africa – scientists are hopeful it can be contained.

Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology at University College London, said it should be closely monitored but “there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future”.

Over the summer, trains were turned into vaccination centres so South Africa could reach adults in remote communities
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Over the summer, trains were turned into vaccination centres so South Africa could reach adults in remote communities

In South Africa, the coronavirus variant has spread rapidly among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” South Africa’s health minister Joe Phaahla said.

Until recently, the country had been reporting about 200 confirmed cases per day – but this has rapidly increased over the past week, hitting 2,465 on Thursday.

Scientists from seven South African universities are now studying the variant, and are trying to determine how many of these new cases are linked to it.

Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, has warned “there is a high probability” that many of the new cases in South Africa are linked to the new variant.

Just 41% of South African adults have been vaccinated and 130,000 jabs are being administered per day – well below the target of 300,000 set by the government.

The country is currently getting deliveries of vaccines faster than they can be used, meaning that officials have been deferring deliveries so they don’t “accumulate and stockpile” vaccines.

World Health Organisation experts are meeting on Friday to assess the variant, which on Wednesday was classed a variant under monitoring.

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If it is upgraded to a variant of concern, it could be given a name from the Greek alphabet – and would likely be referred to as Nu.

However, it could also be classed as a less serious variant of interest, indicating it has characteristics that may affect factors such as transmissibility and disease severity.

It could take weeks to generate all the information needed about this variant’s characteristics.

To date, the Delta variant remains by far the most infectious – and it now accounts for more than 99% of the sequences submitted by countries worldwide.

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Channel deaths: Lifeboatman recalls ‘trauma’ of pulling bodies from water – but people are not easily dissuaded by tales of tragedy | UK News

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Dawn is still breaking when we call in on Charles Devos, the man who saw it all.

Charles is a lifeboatman, just like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. It was his boat that responded to a Mayday call, reporting that 15 people had fallen into the water in the middle of the Channel.

When he arrived, it was a dreadful scene. Charles pulled body after body from the water.

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Deaths ‘no deterrent’’

“Unfortunately we were only able to recover dead people,” he says, standing in the small office building by the town’s port.

He said the boat would have been about 10 metres long, but that it was completely unsuited to the choppy waters of the Channel. By the time he arrived, it had deflated. The boat had become simply a piece of useless plastic.

“Was it a valve that came loose or did it hit something? We may never really know, but I don’t think it was a collision,” says Charles. “The boat was overwhelmed. The sight of these people, drowned, and then having to recover them… it was traumatic.”

But will it change anything? Does death on this scale move the dial? Charles shrugs. “They’re going to continue to try to cross. Calais to Dover is the shortest route. Unfortunately I think there will be more departures.”

He is, of course, correct. As we spoke, other boats were setting off from the beaches up and down this coast. At the main station in Calais, we found dozens of people, many soaking wet, who had tried and failed to get across the Channel and were now being bussed off to temporary accommodation. They will try again, probably quite soon.

Hassan said he would still try to cross the Channel as his life would be "much better" in the UK
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Hassan said he would still try to cross the Channel as his life would be ‘much better’ in the UK

Hassan is a good example. An Iraqi Kurd, he is sleeping rough near Dunkirk. “I heard the news. I have to be honest, I don’t care about other people. If I have my life jacket on I can swim to get to the UK. My heart is strong and I can swim. My life would be much better if I got to the UK. I try every day.”

It is a statement that sounds callous, but is actually born of pragmatism. The people who crowd these camps in northern France are there with only one aim in mind, and that is to reach the shores of Great Britain.

They have often spent months, as well as thousands of pounds, getting this far, eluding police, border guards and enduring pain and discomfort. They are not easily dissuaded, even by appalling tales of tragedy.

The town of Calais was already weary of its reputation as a magnet for migrants, and now the atmosphere is even more taut. Lots of local people find the topic simply too irritating to talk about; others decry the lack of police presence and say Calais has been dragged down by a stream of transient arrivals that stretches back about two decades.

This is what remains of the boat that capsized in the Channel and resulted in the deaths of 27 people
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The remains of the boat that capsized in the Channel and resulted in the deaths of 27 people

But there are also those who think the answer lies in better care and more robust accommodation, so as to integrate migrants into the community around them.

The French police often play their own two-sided game, releasing a lot of officers into the area as a show of strength, but then watching as boats are carried down beaches.

The simple fact is that there are no easy answers. The UK and France both blame the other for not doing enough, while the tides that push people towards the migration route to Britain are many and various.

For a long time, migration has seemed like a theoretical discussion, clouded in politics, economics and questions of culture and heritage. But now it has a dreadful, personal history. Out in the cold, bleak waters of the Channel, 27 people died a horrible death, just because they wanted to get to Britain.

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Channel deaths: Boris Johnson sets out five-point plan to address crossings following tragedy | Politics News

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Boris Johnson has offered to work with France to “move further and faster” in order to tackle small boat crossings and avoid a repeat of the “appalling tragedy” in the Channel that left 27 people dead.

The prime minister has written to President Emmanuel Macron and set out five steps he thinks both sides should take “as soon as possible”.

Mr Johnson’s letter comes after 27 people – 17 men, seven women and two teenage boys and a girl – died near Calais on Wednesday while trying to cross the English Channel to the UK in a flimsy boat.

The PM’s five-point plan entails:

• Joint patrols to prevent migrant boats from leaving French beaches
• Using more advanced technology such as sensors and radar
• Carry out reciprocal maritime patrols in each nation’s territorial waters and utilise airborne surveillance
• “Deepening the work” of the Joint Intelligence Cell and ensuring there is better intelligence sharing to drive more arrests and prosecutions
• Committing to “immediate work” to strike a bilateral returns agreement between Paris and London, as well as discussions on a UK-EU agreement

“If those who reach this country were swiftly returned the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced,” Mr Johnson said.

“This would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs.

“I am confident that by taking these steps and building on our existing cooperation we can address illegal migration and prevent more families from experiencing the devastating loss we saw yesterday.”

The PM said that having spoken to the French president in the wake of Wednesday’s tragedy “I know President Macron recognises, as I do, the urgency of the situation we are both facing”.

Home Secretary Priti Patel will meet French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin this weekend to discuss the migrant crisis, along with counterparts from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In his letter to Mr Macron, Mr Johnson said he was ready to “upgrade this meeting to a leaders’ level summit or to arrange further bilateral discussions with you or with colleagues”.

Ms Patel and her French counterpart spoke on the phone on Thursday to “put forward plans for greater collaboration and innovation in stopping these deadly crossings”.

Home Office officials and law enforcement officers will be in Paris on Friday to “intensify joint co-operation and intelligence-sharing”.

Ms Patel, who is under pressure on the issue after promising in August 2020 to make the route across the English Channel “unviable”, also renewed an offer to send British officers to join patrols on French beaches.

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‘No quick fix’ to migrant crisis

The home secretary earlier told the Commons there is “no quick fix” to tackling the crossings.

“This is about addressing long-term pull factors, smashing the criminal gangs that treat human beings as cargo and tackling supply chains,” she said.

Mr Macron said he was requesting more assistance from the UK.

“We are going to ask for extra help from the British because all these men and these women don’t want to stay in France,” he said.

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Only five migrant returns in 2021, admits minister

“We tell them they’re obviously able to do so, and there are centres in Calais and Dunkirk where they can go, but we’re going to reinforce in fact saving them at sea.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais, laid the blame for the crisis at the door of the British and called on Mr Johnson to “face up to his responsibilities”.

“The British government is to blame. I believe that Boris Johnson has, for the past year and a half, cynically chosen to blame France,” she said, according to French media reports.

And Franck Dhersin, vice president of transport for the northern Hauts-de-France region, said the “mafia chiefs” who spearhead the trafficking networks live in the UK and must be arrested.

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Coastguard alerts ships to Channel boat sinking

Wednesday’s loss of life is the worst of the migrant crisis, which has seen numbers reaching the UK by sea increase from 8,417 in 2020 to more than 25,000 so far this year.

New figures from the Home Office show that asylum claims in the UK are at their highest level for almost 20 years, with more than 37,500 claims made in the year to September.

A government minister revealed last week that just five people had been returned to Europe after crossing the sea on small boats.

Deportations as a whole – not just for people who cross the Channel – are at an historic low.

In the year to June 2021 they decreased to 2,910 – less than half the previous year. The government blamed the drop on the pandemic.



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COVID-19: What we know so far about B.1.1.529 variant that may make vaccines ‘less effective’ | World News

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Vaccines could be less effective against a new COVID variant that UK scientists are “deeply concerned” about, says the health secretary.

Sajid Javid said B.1.1.529 could also be more transmissible and has banned travel from six African countries as a precaution.

Here’s what we know so far.

How concerning is the variant?

It has 32 spike protein mutations, which means the current crop of vaccines may not be as effective at providing protection.

Spike proteins are what viruses use to get into human cells, and some of the vaccines work by training the body to recognise the spikes and neutralise them.

Mutations on the spike can therefore potentially prove problematic.

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‘Our scientists are deeply concerned’ – Javid

Sajid Javid said it has “perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant”.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, branded the mutations “really awful”.

Another expert, Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, agreed that the “constellation” of mutations is a “concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility”.

It’s unclear at the moment whether the variant may cause more severe disease.

Epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson said B.1.1.529 is concerning but there is not yet an “evidence-based assessment of the risk” – such as to what extent it may cause a problem for vaccines.

Have any cases been found in the UK?

No – the good news is that only a handful have been detected across the globe and Dr Peacock emphasised cases are currently “super low”.

So far, three have been found in Botswana, 53 in South Africa and one in Hong Kong – from someone who had travelled from South Africa.

Scientists are therefore hopeful it can be contained and the UK has acted early to try to stop any potential spread.

As well as banning travel from six countries – South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe – people who’ve arrived from there in the last 10 days are being asked to get a PCR test.

It’s important to note that it’s normal for viruses to mutate, and often they can just die out.

How was the variant discovered?

It was found amid a rapid increase in COVID cases in South Africa in the past week.

They increased to more than 1,200 per day on Wednesday and 2,465 on Thursday, having previously been just over 200 per day.

A person gets vaccinated in Soweto, South Africa, earlier in November
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A person gets vaccinated in Soweto, South Africa, earlier in November

The first surge was in and around Pretoria, said South Africa health minister health minister Joe Phaahla, with clusters of cases linked to student gatherings.

Scientists examined the genomic sequencing of these new cases and discovered the variant.

Importantly, they are now looking at what percentage of this surge is the new B.1.1.529 variant.

Experts from seven South Africa universities are studying it and have 100 whole genomes. They also say the variant shows up using a PCR test.

What is the World Health Organisation saying?

It classed it among one of its eight variants under monitoring (VUM) on Wednesday, indicating it may pose a future risk.

Its technical working group is meeting again on Friday to discuss the latest.

The WHO may decide to upgrade it a variant of concern (VOC) – on par with established variants like Delta, meaning it has “global public health significance” – and issue guidance to member countries.

It may also classify it a less serious variant of interest (VOI), which indicates for example that it may affect transmissibility or disease severity.

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