On 22 January, Boris Johnson told the nation:
“We have been informed today that, in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first identified in London and the South East – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”.
According to initial data, it was thought that catching the UK variant might increase a person’s chance of death by 30 per cent.
Though as FactCheck reported last week, the scientists advising the government were keen to stress that the evidence was still uncertain. Indeed, several other experts expressed surprise that the Prime Minister had announced the news at such an early stage.
Fast forward two weeks, and Matt Hancock told MPs on Tuesday of the South African variant:
“As with the variant first identified here in the UK, there is currently no evidence to suggest it is any more severe, but we have to come down on it hard.”
That seems to suggest that the UK variant is not, in fact, any more dangerous than earlier versions of the virus.
We asked the Department for Health and Social Care to explain the apparent contradiction. Did the health secretary misspeak? Or has the government seen new evidence on the UK variant that shows it to be no more deadly than the “old” virus?
We didn’t get a direct answer to these questions, but the Department referred us to comments from Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director at Public Health England:
“There is evidence from some but not all data sources which suggests that the variant of concern which was first detected in the UK may lead to a higher risk of death than the non-variant. Evidence on this variant is still emerging and more work is underway to fully understand how it behaves.
“COVID-19 is still very much with us and causing severe illness and death. The most important thing is to stay at home. Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, cover your face and keep your distance. Remember that every unnecessary contact with someone else may create a chain of transmission that eventually leads to a vulnerable person becoming seriously unwell. ”