Action over variant shows government keen to avoid Christmas calamity of 2020

Last Christmas, as ministers rashly promised five days of festive family gatherings while a new variant gathered pace, Boris Johnson held out until the final hours until he bowed to the inevitable and cancelled Christmas.

Despite rising cases in Europe and new restrictions on the continent, ministers had been bullish about going ahead with Christmas gatherings this year. Cabinet ministers have already sent invites for the Christmas drinks dos.

No 10 has been encouraged that a concerted push for the booster jab programme has seen take-up increase and, although case numbers remain high, deaths and hospitalisations are being kept roughly stable by the vaccine programme – though they are in higher numbers than many countries would tolerate.

Some scientists have warned that people should put off making Christmas plans – but caution is not a word you hear very often on ministers’ lips.

Johnson has always hedged his comments when he is asked about Christmas – roughly once a week – with the caveat that new variants could throw plans off course. Now the worst news has come from South Africa: a variant has emerged that is feared to be more transmissible than others and has the potential to evade immunity.

This time, No 10 has acted fast to place South Africa on the red list from midday on Friday, along with Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Whitehall sources talk in grave terms about the threat the variant poses, saying it is the most severe threat to the UK’s vaccine programme they have seen.

Yet despite the fast action, the UK has recently drastically lowered its guard against the threat of new variants. All countries had been taken off the red list and the government now allows travellers to take a lateral flow test on day two when they return from abroad, though those who test positive are asked to also take a PCR.

But because lateral flow tests are carried out at home and then thrown away, rather than analysed in a lab, it means that there is a delay in sequencing any potential new variants and working out their origin.

It is too early to make any call about how big a threat the variant poses to Christmas plans. But it will come as a huge blow to more than 100,000 South Africans living in the UK, kept apart from family for almost the entire pandemic and for whom travel had only recently opened up.

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