New coronavirus variant is present in Wales

A mutated variation of Covid-19 which has been linked to a rapid increase in coronavirus in the south of England is also present in Wales, the Welsh Government has confirmed.

The Welsh Government said there are at least 10 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus variant in Wales and more are expected to be identified.

More than 1,000 cases have been recorded across 60 English council areas and the UK government minister for health in England Matt Hancock has said work is being done at Porton Down to examine if the vaccine will cover the new variant but there was no reason to suggest it would not. He said there was “nothing to suggest” it caused worse disease.

He said: “We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.

“We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant, but no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out.”

The Welsh Government said: “It is natural for a virus to mutate over time and we have seen a range of mutations in Wales.

“In relation to this particular mutation, we have identified 10 confirmed cases and five probable cases through sequencing that took place during November. Further sequencing is under way and we expect to identify further cases.

“Public Health Wales is actively looking for this variant and will be tracking any other Welsh cases as they emerge. Our findings will be feeding into the work being undertaken across the UK.”

It comes as the infection rate in Wales continues to grow and outstrip the rest of the UK.

Experts warn it is too early to worry about new strain

Experts have warned it is too early to be worried about the new variant of coronavirus, or make any claims about the potential impacts of the virus mutation.

Matt Hancock said the new strand of the virus, first observed in Kent, is being assessed by Government scientists at its Porton Down research laboratory.

Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told the Downing Street press conference there was nothing to suggest a vaccine would not work against the new strain and that current tests can detect it.

He explained: “There’s still a quite a small proportion of the population, currently have immunity due to prior infection.

“So there isn’t a huge selection pressure on this virus.

“And therefore, it would be surprising – not impossible, but pretty surprising, if this would actually have evolved to be able to get around the virus.”

He added that as time goes by selection pressures, when a very high proportion of the population has been vaccinated, mean any new variants that emerge are more likely to be ones which actually are able partially to escape from a vaccine but there’s no reason to think that would be happening at the moment.

Prof Whitty also said there was nothing to indicate the new strain causes any different symptoms, that the testing is different or the clinical outcome is different for this variant.

It could take a year to vaccinate the UK

Leading scientists warn it would take almost a year to vaccinate the entire UK population against Covid-19, even with no interruptions in vaccine supply.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which advises ministers, said the rapid development of vaccines in response to the Covid-19 pandemic was a “remarkable achievement”. Wales’ new Control Plan reveals what’s going to happen in the first six months of 2021.

But together with Professor Tim Cook, a consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine from the University of Bristol, Sir Jeremy warned there was still a long way to go.

Writing in the journal Anaesthesia, they said: “The scale of the vaccination programme should not be underestimated: 1,000 vaccination centres each vaccinating 500 people a day for five days a week, without interruptions of supply or delivery, would take almost a year to provide two doses to the UK population.

“No country has mounted a whole population vaccination campaign in living memory and it will need to be undertaken with local leadership and cultural sensitivity.”

It is estimated that about 20% of the UK population may decline to receive the vaccine, but the authors say that if 80% of people have the jab “there would finally be the prospect of a degree of population (herd) immunity”.

This would “reduce virus transmission in the community to very low levels and protect both those who are vaccinated and those who are not.

Fears over easing of coronavirus rules

Scientists have warned that the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will cause a spike in infections.

Wales’ health minister has refused to rule out introducing tougher restrictions before Christmas in the wake of rising coronavirus cases across Wales.

Vaughan Gething said in his press conference on Monday afternoon that “every option was still available” to the Welsh Government and that discussions had taken place with partners to set out the best course of action. You can follow live updates from that here.

Health minister Vaughan Gething
Health minister Vaughan Gething

In England, London and parts of the commuter belt will be placed under the toughest measures – forcing the closure of hospitality – from Wednesday following a “very sharp” rise in cases.

There are concerns over plans to allow up to three households to mix indoors from December 23 to 27 – with fears the country will “pay the price” in the new year.

David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on Covid-19, said the price of such a relaxation “could well be very high”.

Urging people to think carefully about their plans, he told Times Radio: “Just ask yourself, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year?

“It’s much better not to do it when there’s this kind of virus about.”

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty also struck a cautious tone, saying people should not meet at Christmas just because they can.

Downing Street insisted there were no plans to change the “Christmas bubble” policy despite the fears.

Are you worried about rising coronavirus cases in Wales? We’d like to hear your views

What the start of 2021 could look like in Wales

The Welsh Government has laid out the lockdown restrictions everyone in Wales could be living under after Christmas.

First Minister Mark Drakeford has indicated that if the new restrictions on hospitality don’t slow the spread of the virus Wales could be back in a so-called level four lockdown from December 28.

This is all laid out in a new plan from the Welsh Government which paints a potentially bleak picture for the next six months for those living in Wales.

The new Coronavirus Control Plan outlines exactly how Wales’ new traffic light alert system is going to work.

In a detailed document, the Welsh Government suggests that local lockdowns could return and it could be the summer before large-scale or “risky” events return.

We have gone through the plan to bring out the key points that can affect the lives of you and your family. You can read it here.

Latest figures for Wales

The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Wales has risen by another 1,228 new cases, Public Health Wales (PHW) said in its latest update on Monday.

The latest statistics released by Public Health Wales on Monday, December 14, also showed that another 33 people have died after testing positive for the virus in Wales.

The infection rate across Wales now stands at 450 per 100,000 people based on the seven days up to December 9.

Merthyr Tydfil is now the local authority with the highest infection rate in Wales with a seven day rate of 870 cases per 100,000 population.

Neath Port Talbot has the second highest rate with 770.3 per 100,000 population.

Bridgend is now third with 698.4 cases per 100,000. Cases in your area here.

Intensive care doctor’s plea

These rising cases has lead to a consultant in intensive care urging the Welsh Government to consider introducing a Wales-wide lockdown before Christmas in a bid to save lives.

Dr Richard Pugh, chairman of the Welsh Intensive Care Society, warned that hospital critical care units would be unable to cope in the coming weeks without “intervention at the highest level”.

The number of patients with either confirmed or suspected coronavirus in Welsh hospitals exceeded 2,000 for the first time last Friday, with increased staff absence rates blamed in part on dwindling bed availability.

In his letter to Health Minister Vaughan Gething on behalf of the society , Dr Pugh said 184 critical care beds were currently being used in Wales, half of which by coronavirus patients.

“Effectively, all of our baseline critical care capacity is therefore full,” said Dr Pugh.

“Welsh critical care services will be unable to manage rising demands relating to Covid-19, to maintain emergency non-Covid activity and to continue providing peri-operative care for high-risk urgent surgical cases in the coming weeks without intervention at the highest level.”

How many cases are there in your area? Find out with your post code:

Changes to coronavirus restrictions in Scotland to be outlined

The results of the final review of Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions before the new year will be announced by the First Minister on Tuesday.

Nicola Sturgeon will tell the Scottish Parliament which of the Government’s five levels each local authority area will be placed in.

The majority of the Scottish population are currently in the second highest tier – Level 3 – which prevents alcohol being served in hospitality and requires all leisure and entertainment premises to close.

Seven areas are in Level 1 – including Scottish Borders and Highland – with the rest in Level 2.

Ms Surgeon previously said this week’s review was likely to be the last until January 5.

She told MSPs on December 8 that she was “reluctant to give 100% certainty” as “the virus is not going to take Christmas off”.

The Netherlands faces lockdown until January 19

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has imposed a tough new five-week nationwide lockdown, saying schools, non-essential shops, museums and gyms will close at midnight until January 19.

“We have to bite through this very sour apple before things get better,” a sombre Mr Rutte said in a televised address to the nation.

As he spoke from his office in The Hague, protesters could be heard blowing whistles outside.

“The reality is that this is is not an innocent flu as some people – like the demonstrators outside – think,” he said. “But a virus that can hit everybody hard.”

From Tuesday, all non-essential shops will close along with businesses such as hair salons, museums and theatres. All schools and universities will have to switch to remote learning from Wednesday. Nurseries will be closed to all except children of key workers.

The government also urged people to receive a maximum of two guests over the age of 13 per day, but relaxed the rule slightly for December 24-26, saying three people can visit on those days.

“We realise as a cabinet how intense and drastic the measures we are taking today are,” Mr Rutte said. “Especially so close to Christmas.”

As news of the looming lockdown leaked out before his speech, many people keen to take their last chance at Christmas shopping flocked into city centres.

Queues formed at shops, museums and even pot-selling coffee shops as people tried to beat the lockdown.

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