UK health authorities identified a second mutated strain of the coronavirus on Wednesday, with Secretary of Health Matt Hancock saying it appears to have arrived in the country from South Africa.
"We've detected two cases of another new variant of coronavirus here in the UK," Hancock told reporters. "This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the [earlier reported] new variant that's been discovered in the UK," the minister said.
Hancock said the new cases have been quarantined, as have anyone who have came into close contact with them. He instructed people who have recently traveled to South Africa to quarantine.
The minister further indicated that more areas of the country, including much of east and southeast of England, will join tier 4 "stay at home" orders from Boxing Day, 26 December. The restrictions will be similar to those in place during lockdown, including closure of non-essential businesses, while people will only be allowed out to shop for food, exercise, and visit hospital. Those who can work remotely will also be made to do so.
Hancock also said he was "delighted" to inform Britons that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine had "submitted its full data package to the [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] for approval," with the process serving as "the next step toward a decision on the deployment of the vaccine, which is already being manufactured, including here in the UK."
The health secretary said he does not know how long a complete vaccination roll-out will take.
UK authorities are struggling to combat the first mutation of coronavirus, the existence of which was revealed to the public earlier this month. Hancock and other health officials have urged Britons to follow rules and "restrict social contact as much as is possible because this is deadly serious."
Despite its more contagious nature, medical professionals have indicated that the mutated coronavirus is not any more dangerous than the original virus.
Previously announced restrictions sparked a wave of protests in London, with 29 arrests made on Saturday as about 17,000 people gathered in Parliament Square to vent their anger
Major UK media have also reported that the government may introduce a full lockdown in the New Year in reaction to the original mutant strain of the virus.
The government has taken heat over its coronavirus response measures recently after it was discovered that Mr. Hancock's neighbour won a 30 million pound contract to supply vials for COVID tests, despite no previous experience with the production of medical supplies. Hancock has denied any wrongdoing, suggesting he was not involved in issuing the award and saying it went through "the normal channels."