Ministers are set to ban flights from Brazil and surrounding countries

By Stephen Matthews Health Editor and Sam Blanchard Deputy Health Editor and James Tapsfield Political Editor For Mailonline Published: 10:05 GMT, 14 January 2021 | Updated: 10:44 GMT, 14 January 2021

Ministers are set to ban flights from Brazil and surrounding countries

Travellers from Brazil and surrounding countries will be banned from entering UK from TODAY - but scientist says it may already be too late as warnings started DAYS ago and it 'could already be in Britain'

  • Boris Johnson admitted he is 'concerned' about new Covid strain from Brazil 
  • Ministers will discuss complete ban on flights from South America later today  
  • MPs have condemned the government for failing to act fast enough on border
  • Have you rushed back to the UK needlessly? Email martin.robinson@mailonline.co.uk

No10 looks set to finally ban flights from Brazil today, days after scientists sounded the alarm about a new Covid super-strain.

Boris Johnson and ministers on the Covid-O committee will today consider suspending all travel from the whole of South America to tackle the variant. 

This could include other countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia and also apply to travellers arriving indirectly from Europe or the US who have been in South America within the last 10 days. 

The Prime Minister yesterday admitted officials were 'concerned' about the variant and claimed the Government was 'taking steps' to ensure it doesn't spread in Britain. 

Public Health England said it hasn't picked up any cases of the variant yet, but wouldn't rule out its already being in Britain. One scientist told MailOnline it is 'entirely possible' it has spread here already but likely not in large numbers.

Experts and politicians have raised fears that the Kent and South African mutations — which are very similar to the South African strain — could make vaccines less effective.

But top scientists studying the constantly mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, insist jabs currently being rolled-out are 'still likely to be effective'.

Pfizer has already tested its own vaccine against the variants that emerged in Kent and South Africa and said the jab appeared to work just as well despite the mutations. 

The Prime Minister revealed ministers were looking at ways to stop a variant of the variant found in Brazil — but dodged questions about whether Britain would adopt a travel ban

The Prime Minister revealed ministers were looking at ways to stop a variant of the variant found in Brazil — but dodged questions about whether Britain would adopt a travel ban

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced late last night that is being pushed back to Monday to give people 'time to prepare'

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced late last night that is being pushed back to Monday to give people 'time to prepare'

In a round of interviews this morning, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins suggested the government was trying to balance 'economic' factors with health protection

In a round of interviews this morning, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins suggested the government was trying to balance 'economic' factors with health protection

Pictured: A gravedigger works at the Parque Taruma cemetery amid the coronavirus outbreak in Manaus, Brazil in December

Pictured: A gravedigger works at the Parque Taruma cemetery amid the coronavirus outbreak in Manaus, Brazil in December

If evidence emerges that the Brazilian variant is significantly different to others already in Britain, it could present more obstacles to getting life back to normal.  

Amid a row over the Government's response to the latest strain, MPs yesterday accused the Prime Minister of failing to tighten the UK's borders quickly enough. 

MPs also questioned why new rules requiring all travellers to test negative before they enter the UK are only being brought in ten months after the pandemic began. Other countries have had similar rules in place for months.

Asked why the air corridor between Brazil and parts of South America to the UK had not already been closed, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said: 'Of course, people flying into the UK, whether from South America or elsewhere are required to have a 10-day quarantine period when they land in the UK. That is mandatory.

'In terms of the decision on travel measures, it takes a little bit of time.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANT? 

Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1

Date: Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.

Is it in the UK? Public health officials and scientists randomly sample around 1 in 10 coronavirus cases in the UK and they have not yet reported any cases of B.1.1.248, but this doesn't rule it out completely.

Why should we care? The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.

It has a third, less well-studied mutation called K417T, and the ramifications of this are still being researched. 

What do the mutations do?

The N501Y mutation makes the spike protein better at binding to receptors in people's bodies and therefore makes the virus more infectious. 

Exactly how much more infectious it is remains to be seen, but scientists estimate the similar-looking variant in the UK is around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor. 

Even if the virus doesn't appear to be more dangerous, its ability to spread faster and cause more infections will inevitably lead to a higher death rate.

Another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, is also on the spike protein and is present in the South African variant. 

E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.

Will our vaccines still protect us?

There is no reason to believe that already-developed Covid vaccines will not protect against the variant.

The main and most concerning change to this version of the virus is its N501Y mutation.

Pfizer, the company that made the first vaccine to get approval for public use in the UK, has specifically tested its jab on viruses carrying this mutation in  a lab after the variants emerged in the UK and South Africa.

They found that the vaccine worked just as well as it did on other variants and was able to ignore the change.

And, as the South African variant carries another of the major mutations on the Brazilian strain (E484K) and the Pfizer jab worked against that, too, it is likely that the new mutation would not affect vaccines. 

The immunity developed by different types of vaccine is broadly similar, so if one of them is able to work against it, the others should as well.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, said: 'Vaccines are still likely to be effective as a control measure if coverage rates are high and transmission is limited as far as possible.'

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'What we need to ensure is that when we make these very, very important decisions that have a huge impact on people's personal lives, but also businesses, we have got to have a little bit of time to let that bed in.

'The Prime Minister was clear that measure will be taken, we have acted decisively in the past with both the Denmark and South African variants, so I wouldn't want to speculate further at this stage.' 

The requirement for all international passengers coming to the UK to show a negative Covid-19 test had been due to come into effect tomorrow. 

Passengers – including returning Britons – will have to get a test within 72 hours of travelling. 

Border Force guards will carry out spot checks and anyone flouting the rules will be fined £500.

But, tweeting after 11pm last night, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps declared that the testing measure was being delayed. 

'To give international arrivals time to prepare passengers will be required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before departure to England from MONDAY 18 JANUARY at 4am,' he said.

Adding to the confusion, Mr Shapps added a calendar emoji showing the 17th. 

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the situation was 'utter chaos'.

'The Government has lacked a comprehensive airport testing policy through this pandemic and now it is slipping into utter chaos,' he said.

'Issuing statements in the middle of the night, because their proposals are unworkable, causes ever greater challenges for travellers and industry.

'This chronic failure is also putting us at risk yet again, from strains such as those that emerged in South Africa and Brazil. As ever, Ministers are too slow to act and it's putting people at serious risk.' 

And Scotland's Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the negative test requirement was already in force north of the border - even though it is not due to be until tomorrow.

In an interview on BBC Breakfast he was asked what the Scottish position was following the news that rules requiring travellers arriving in England to have a negative coronavirus test have been delayed.

He said: 'The position in Scotland is that those restrictions are in place and we want to see people following those restrictions to make sure that we minimise the risk.'

Asked, 'So you have to have a test before you travel to Scotland?', he replied 'Yes' and agreed that the restrictions apply now.

Home affairs committee chair and Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, savaged Mr Johnson yesterday for failing to act fast enough.  

At the Liaison Committee hearing, she demanded to know why UK borders were not immediately shut to travellers from Brazil after warnings of the new strain.

She asked him: 'Why aren't you taking immediate action on a precautionary basis?' 

Ms Cooper also criticised the quarantine system for being 'so much weaker' than measures in dozens of other countries which include rigorous border testing. 

'She said it meant arrivals being allowed to board public transport to get to where they will self-isolate after landing, with few checks to see if people are quarantining.

Ms Cooper added: 'You give the impression each time that you just delay all of the difficult and uncomfortable decisions until the last possible minute and when so many lives are at stake, Prime Minister, is this the leadership we really need?'

Mr Johnson claimed 'huge quantities of checks' are being carried out to see if people are self-isolating.  

It is understood ministers will today consider imposing a complete ban on flights and visitors for the whole of South America to tackle the Brazil variant. Pictured: Guarulhos, Sao Paulo

It is understood ministers will today consider imposing a complete ban on flights and visitors for the whole of South America to tackle the Brazil variant. Pictured: Guarulhos, Sao Paulo

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread

All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread 

The PM said: 'We are concerned about the new Brazilian variant.

'We already have tough measures… to protect this country from new infections coming in from abroad. We are taking steps to do that in respect of the Brazilian variant.'

He added: 'There are lots of questions we still have about that variant, we don't know for instance, any more than we know whether the South African variant is vaccine resistant.'      

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific adviser, told ITV's Peston show there was no evidence any of the variants led to more severe disease. 

It is not yet known if the Brazilian strain is present in the UK. Brazil has had one of the world's highest Covid death tolls – 205,000.

The SAGE sub-group NERVTAG discussed the issue on Tuesday. 

Brazil has already banned flights from the UK amid the pandemic, so the new move would be a reciprocal one, although it's not likely to affect a lot of people.

In 2019, there were around 290,000 visits to the UK from people travelling from Brazil, but there are currently no direct flights running from Brazil to the UK, according to Skyscanner.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told the Commons a new jab could be manufactured in 30 to 40 days if a variant of the virus is found to be less responsive to those available.

The Department for Transport published small print of the rules requiring all passengers entering the UK to show a negative test only late last night – shortly before they are due to kick in.

But they won't be enforced until Monday due to a 'grace period' brought in after a backlash from the travel industry. 

Before the delay was announced, Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, chairman of the Airport Operators Association, said: 'It's horrendous.

'We need to support travellers who are facing the issue of needing to get home.

'The industry wants to deliver the safest way to get home, but it needs that guidance and the detail in good time.' 

Paul Charles, the chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: 'There is not enough clarity around the type of tests allowed, leaving consumers panicking about whether they will be let into the country without a fine, because they have the wrong documentation. Policy on the hoof never works.'

Up to 100,000 Britons are estimated to be abroad. Many went in mid-December before the third lockdown.

Experts last night questioned why Britain had not brought in testing at the border, despite dozens of countries around the world having had it in place for months. 

Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist at the University of Warwick, said: 'You could argue it's too little, too late. We should have been doing this ages ago.

'If you look at where successful lockdowns, in terms of returning back to normality, have happened, that's where people have closed their borders. The horse has bolted.

'It is hard to understand why we haven't been more stringent about international travel and why we're doing testing now and didn't pay as much attention to it last March. Testing has to be a really important part of this.' 

A Department for Transport spokesperson told MailOnline: 'As the Prime Minister said, we are aware of this new variant and are considering urgent measures to reduce the spread to the UK. 

'Arrivals from Brazil are already required to self-isolate for ten days or face a fine starting at £500.'  

It is normal for viruses to mutate and early signs don't suggest that any of the new variants of coronavirus are more deadly than others, but in some places it is evolving to be able to spread faster.

If the virus is faster spreading it will inevitably lead to more cases which will in turn lead to a higher death count, even if the strain itself isn't more dangerous.

The variant that emerged in Kent, now estimated to be around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor, has quickly become the dominant form of the virus in England and has led to the country's longest and toughest lockdown since March 2020.

There is no evidence to suggest vaccines will be any less effective against this variant. Pfizer, maker of the first jab to be approved, tested theirs on the similar UK and South Africa variants and said it still worked just as well.   

The mutated variant of coronavirus was discovered in Japan last week in four people who had arrived on a flight from Brazil. It was first detected in Brazil in October.

Scientists said it had similarities to that of the highly contagious variants in Britain and South Africa. 

Namely, it has a genetic mutation called N501Y, which changes the shape of the spike proteins found on the outside of the virus.

This mutation makes the virus more able to latch onto the receptors inside the body that it targets, essentially meaning it successfully makes it past the body's natural defences more often.

Therefore people who are exposed to the virus become infected more often than they would if the other person was infected with an older, less contagious strain.

A World Health Organization report on the variant last week said: 'The variant was identified when whole-genome sequencing was conducted on samples from 4 travellers from Brazil who were tested at the airport...

'Through our regional offices, we are working with both Japanese and Brazilian authorities to evaluate the significance of these findings. 

'We are also working with our Viral Evolution Working Group to assess the significance of this, and if this variant as well as others identified in recent months result in changes in transmissibility, clinical presentation or severity, or if they impact on countermeasures, including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.'

It added: 'The same comprehensive approach to controlling Covid-19 works against these variants. 

'At an individual level, protective measures work for all identified variants: physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue.' 

It is too early on in the variant's discovery for politicians or scientists to be confident about how the changes to the virus will affect outbreaks.

Lab testing suggests its N501Y mutation could make it more transmissible – the UK variant with the same change is estimated to be around 56 per cent more infectious, but other changes to the virus may affect this, too.

And another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, which is also on the spike protein, may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.

However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.

There is no reason to believe that already-developed Covid vaccines will not protect against the variant.

The main and most concerning change to this version of the virus is its N501Y mutation, which has been linked to faster transmission.

Pfizer, the company that made the first vaccine to get approval for public use in the UK, has specifically tested its jab on viruses carrying this mutation in  a lab after the variants emerged in the UK and South Africa.

They found that the vaccine worked just as well as it did on other variants and was able to ignore the change.

And, as the South African variant carries another of the major mutations on the Brazilian strain (E484K) and the Pfizer jab worked against that, too, it is likely that the new mutation would not affect vaccines. 

This new variant (shown in light green) was first spotted in Brazil in October and accounted for a growing share of infections there in November

This new variant (shown in light green) was first spotted in Brazil in October and accounted for a growing share of infections there in November 

The immunity developed by different types of vaccine is broadly similar, so if one of them is able to work against it, the others should as well.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, said: 'The Brazilian variant has three key mutations in the spike receptor binding domain (RBD) that largely mirror some of the mutations we are worried about it in the South African variant, hence the concern. 

'The SARS-CoV-2 RBD is one of the main targets for our immune defences and also the region targeted by vaccines and changes within this region are therefore worrisome. 

'Vaccines are still likely to be effective as a control measure if coverage rates are high and transmission is limited as far as possible.'      

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan said in its report that the people infected with the variant were found in airport screening in Tokyo on January 2.

They had travelled from Amazonas, a state in the north of Brazil which contains the city Manaus, home to two million people and the first place the variant was found.

The disease institute (NIID) said: 'Information on the variant isolate is limited to viral genome sequence data. 

'Further investigation is necessary to assess infectivity, pathogenicity, and impact on laboratory diagnosis and vaccine efficacy of this variant strain.

'NIID recommends that persons infected with the variant isolate should be monitored in an isolated room and active epidemiological investigation should be initiated including contact tracing (with source investigation) and monitoring of the clinical course.'

Ministers and experts have said the repeated emergence of new variants is a warning sign that the coronavirus is evolving frequently and that some of the evolutions make significant changes to how the virus works.

Although the variants spotted already don't seem to make the virus more deadly or have the ability to get past a vaccine, the more different variants there are, the more likely it is than one will have a mutation that spells disaster.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a virologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban, South Africa, told The Telegraph: 'This variant is a wake up call that we should try to really decrease transmission of SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus]. 

'It is clear that if you leave it circulating, the virus has the ability to outsmart us and become better at transmission and evasion of the antibody response.'

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