“Over the past few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capacity in the United Kingdom, we have identified a new type of Coronavirus, which may be associated with a faster spread in southeast England,” said Hancock in Parliament.
He said that more than 1,000 cases have been identified in this way, most of them in southern England, and that “the numbers are increasing rapidly”.
He said similar variables had been identified in other countries in recent months, and that the UK had notified the WHO about the new alternative as expert analysis continued.
Hancock added: “I must emphasize at this point that there is currently no indication that this alternative is likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that this mutation is unlikely to fail to respond to the vaccine.”
“It shows that we have to be vigilant and follow the rules, and everyone should bear personal responsibility for not spreading this virus,” he said.
Hancock said London would move from “high alert” local restrictions in England from Level 2 to Level 3 “extremely high” Wednesday morning at 12:00 am, along with neighboring areas in southern and western Essex and southern Hertfordshire.
Under the highest level of restrictions, all hospitality venues including bars, cafes and restaurants will be closed except for fast food and delivery.
Residents are already unable to meet people from other homes indoors, and now they will not be able to meet in private gardens or in most outdoor locations. They can meet up to six people outside in parks, public parks, or sports facilities. Retailers will be able to stay open.
People should avoid traveling outside of their area and reduce the number of trips they take wherever possible.
“Over the past three weeks, we have seen very sharp exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire,” the health minister said.
“We don’t know to what extent this is due to the new variable, but regardless of the cause, we have to take swift and decisive action, which unfortunately is absolutely necessary to control this deadly disease while vaccines are rolled out,” added Hancock.
He said that in some areas, doubling time is now about every seven days, and that rates have been rising not only among school children, “but in all age groups including those over the age of 60.”
He added that hospitals in London, Essex and Kent were already under pressure and could be “flooded” quickly without taking any action.
Hancock said early action “not necessarily easy but effective” is vital to preventing long-term damage, adding that community testing will be extended as well.
He added: “I know that the steps are difficult, but we must not hesitate as we enter the final stage, even when we look back at this time of crisis, we can all say that we have played our role.”
London is joined by regions that include much of northern and central England, Kent in the southeast, and Bristol in the southwest at Level 3.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the decision was “incredibly disappointing for companies that have already suffered so much”, but said it was “clear the virus is accelerating” and that lives are at risk.
“It will be a tragedy to lose more people to this disease when the vaccine is now deployed in our city,” he said.
“We know from bitter experience that when issues start to rise quickly, it is much better to act early, rather than delay. This is how we can avoid tighter, longer, restrictions on the road.”
This evolving story has been updated with additional reports.