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New variant of coronavirus in the UK may be deadlier than the original virus

Preliminary evidence indicates the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus first identified in the UK may additionally be more deadly, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told a press briefing on Friday. The government was briefed by researchers in the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, who are assessing the data on the variant, which appears to be about 30 per cent more deadly. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and at Imperial College London who analysed data on the new variant concluded it is between 29 and 36 per cent more lethal, whereas researchers at the University of Exeter put the figure at 91 per cent. The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said the evidence on lethality “is not yet strong”, adding: “but it is obviously a concern”.

The UK’s coronavirus epidemic may be shrinking, as the R number – the number of people each person with covid-19 infects – was found to be at or below 1.0 for the first time since early December. The latest official estimate for the R number puts it at between 0.8 and 1.0. Separate figures from the Office for National Statistics’ random swab testing survey indicate the number of new cases may be levelling off slightly across England, Wales and Scotland, although cases still appear to be rising sharply in Northern Ireland. An estimated one in 55 people in England had the virus in the week up to 16 January, compared to one in 50 people two weeks earlier. In Northern Ireland, the estimated infection rate jumped from one in 200 in the previous survey to one in 60 in the most recent one. Equivalent figures for Wales and Scotland in the most recent week were one in 70 and one in 100 people estimated to have had the virus. 

Other coronavirus news

People in England attending house parties of more than 15 people will receive £800 fines starting next week. Home secretary Priti Patel told a Downing street press conference that there remained a “small minority that refuse to do the right thing”. But some scientists, including members of the Independent SAGE group, are calling for the government to tighten restrictions in England, arguing that the main problem is that the existing rules are too permissive, rather than people not abiding by them. “The problem is not that people are flexing the rules but that the rules are too flexible,” Stephen Richer at the University of St Andrews told an Independent SAGE briefing. When people do break the rules – for example, by not staying home when they have symptoms – it is often because they have little choice, added Susan Michie at University College London. “People are going out because they haven’t got enough income in order to stay home,” she said at the briefing.

The UK government said it has no plans to start paying £500 to people who test positive for the coronavirus in England after reports in the Guardian that ministers were considering the idea. “There are no plans to introduce an extra £500 payment,” said a spokesperson for UK prime minister Boris Johnson. The idea was reportedly prompted by government polling, which suggested only 17 per cent of people with symptoms are coming forward for testing. 


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