New COVID strain could cause 'very, very many deaths' if we don’t reduce social contact, says scientist

Watch: Government scientist warns we 'should be very concerned' about new strain

People in the UK must reduce their social contact if “very, very many deaths” from the new strain of coronavirus are to be prevented, a scientist has said.

Professor Andrew Hayward, from the government’s New and Emerging Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the emergence of the new COVID-19 variant is the “worst news” of the pandemic so far.

The new strain, named VUI-202012/01, is spreading faster than previous versions of the virus and caused Boris Johnson to announce a Tier 4 lockdown across London and the South East, which came into force on Sunday.

The new strain of coronavirus – which the government said is up to 70% more transmissible – is associated with a quicker spread than previous versions and has already been transmitted to other parts of the UK.

Professor Andrew Hayward said the new strain of coronavirus was the 'worst news'. (Sky News)
Professor Andrew Hayward said the new strain of coronavirus was the 'worst news'. (Sky News)

Prof Hayward, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare at University College London (UCL), told Sky News on Monday: “If we’re going to prevent very, very many deaths we need to reduce further the amount of contact.”

Speaking about the new variant, he said: "This is really terrible news in terms of the pandemic.

Commuters wearing masks because of the Covid-19 pandemic are seen at London's Victoria Station during the morning rush hour on December 21, 2020 after London was placed under stringent Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions as cases of the virus surge due to a new more infectious strain. - The British prime minister was to chair a crisis meeting on December 21 as a growing number of countries blocked flights from Britain over a new highly infectious coronavirus strain the UK said was "out of control". (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP) (Photo by NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images)
A new strain of coronavirus is spreading through the UK faster than previous versions. (AFP via Getty)

"If vaccine was the best news, and still is, in this pandemic, then this is the worst news we've had so far.

“We really, really need to tighten down the hatches in order to stop the spread of this strain whilst we can get as many people vaccinated as possible. And I think we need to be doing that across the country.”

Prof Hayward also called on the government to ban international travel.

“We can see internationally that other countries are taking action to stop travel from the UK,” he said.

“I think we should be taking our own action to stop international travel. That would be the responsible thing to do.”

As a result of the new variant of COVID-19, several European countries banned flights from the UK, while France suspended all ferry and rail traffic between the two nations.

There was widespread anger as Johnson was accused of causing nationwide “heartbreak” with his U-turn over Christmas restrictions.

The Christmas bubble policy, which would have allowed up to three families to spend time together between 23 and 27 December, has been dramatically scaled back, with those in Tiers 1 to 3 only allowed to socialise on Christmas Day.

On Sunday, health secretary Matt Hancock warned that the new strain was “out of control”.

COVID-19 restrictions in England. (PA)

Johnson is holding emergency talks on Monday to prevent Christmas food shortages as the freight industry feels the impact of the travel ban.

On Sunday, the UK reported a record rise in daily infections, with 35,928 new cases.

Watch: New COVID variant is ‘out of control’