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U.K. Tightens Rules As A Variant Of The COVID-19 Virus Spreads

NOEL KING, HOST:

Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, called an emergency meeting this morning. A variant of the coronavirus is spreading in the U.K., and scientists say it could be much more infectious than the original. Other European countries - including France, Ireland and Italy - have now banned travel to and from the U.K. And here's Matt Hancock, Britain's health secretary, talking to the BBC yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT HANCOCK: The new variant is out of control, and we need to bring it under control. And this news about the new variant has been an incredibly difficult end to, frankly, an awful year.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt is just outside of London. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Noel.

KING: So you have a travel ban. You have a lockdown in some parts of the U.K. It is sounding a lot like March and April with respect to isolation.

LANGFITT: It does. It feels very - much more isolated than it did even just a few days ago here on the island of Great Britain. Now, France has gone further and say, no trucks coming from Britain across the English Channel on ferries. The Eurotunnel, which runs under the channel, is also closed. This seems to be a precautionary measure for about 48 hours.

There's a lot of concern now around the Christmas season. We've already seen backups at the port of Dover, 20 miles long. And what's been happening is people are trying to get freight across the channel before the deadline for the Brexit transition period, which is going to end on New Year's Eve. Right now we have truckers stranded on both sides of the water. And the only good news, I'd say, is that shipping containers - which are the majority of trade - they're still moving because, of course, they're not people driving the shipping containers.

KING: OK. Let's establish something that scientists say often, which is that viruses do mutate. We expect them to.

LANGFITT: Sure.

KING: Why are government scientists in the U.K. so concerned about this particular mutation?

LANGFITT: I think a couple of reasons. One is that it quickly became the dominant version in this part of England, where I am - in London and beyond. And that's not a big problem. We saw that with the Spanish virus, not - over the summer, when people, tourists, brought it back from Spain. The problem - and in London, for instance, right now, this new variant, about over 60% of the virus is found in London.

The problem is that this domination is coinciding with exponential growth of the virus in these areas. Scientists now believe it could be up to 70% more infectious than the various mutations that are floating around this country. And that's why I think you're seeing the dramatic response of these European neighbors and, of course, the lockdown that we have here in London. One important good news so far is there's no sign that this mutation has more severe symptoms or is more deadly.

KING: OK, that's some good news. What about scientists outside of Britain? Are they expressing concern about this?

LANGFITT: They are. Ones that I've talked to, particularly in the last 24 hours - a vaccine expert and epidemiologists - they don't like the data they're seeing either. This is Emma Hodcroft. She's an epidemiologist who studies coronavirus mutations at the University of Bern in Switzerland. This is what she said this morning.

EMMA HODCROFT: I do think that it's concerning, and I don't say that very lightly. Certainly, as evidence has gathered with this new variant, it does seem like there might be an increased transmissibility. And so I do think we need to start being quite cautious about what we're doing about it.

KING: And as you said earlier, Frank, the timing here is really messy because Britain still hasn't been able to strike a free trade deal with the European Union.

LANGFITT: No.

KING: Time runs out on New Year's Eve. This can't make anything easier, can it?

LANGFITT: No, it just makes things even worse. And I don't think people would have even imagined that this was likely to happen. There's the great risk if there's no deal on free trade - there's no free trade deal - we see customs and tariffs going up in Dover. Right now trucks aren't even crossing the English Channel. So it could be even more disruptive than what we imagined, would do a lot more economic damage on both sides of the channel.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.