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Travel ban considered as mutant Covid strain feared ’50% more contagious’

Millions of families could see their Christmas plans ruined by potential travel bans imposed to limit the spread of a new ‘highly contagious’ mutant strain of coronavirus.

Boris Johnson held emergency talks last night in which ministers understood to have discussed how to contain the new variant, with reports suggesting London and Kent could effectively be cut off from the rest of the UK.

The meeting came after scientists warned the new strain is 50% more contagious than any previously detected.

Proposals for limiting its spread could include restrictions on travel to and from the South East and banning commuters travelling into London, a source told the Daily Telegraph.

The new travel advice could be announced as early as today, reports suggest.

A government source told The Sun: ‘What we do not know yet is whether the new strain is more or less likely to cause you harm, but what we have learnt is that it will pass from person to person much more easily and that is what we are really worried about.’

Mr Johnson was last night presented with ‘alarming’ new evidence about the variant strain, according to reports.

Professor Sir Mark Walport – a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – said there was a real possibility that it could have a ‘transmission advantage’.

He told BBC2’s Newsnight: ‘What happens with viruses is they do naturally mutate all the time and the ones that are likely to do well are the ones that increase transmission.

‘We know that this is a new variant, it has been seen in other countries but it seems to be quite widespread which suggests that it has got a transmission advantage.

‘Scientists are working extremely hard to work out what is going on. But it does definitely seem possible that this transmits more easily.

‘It will make the social-distancing even more critical.’

Downing Street would not comment on reports that new travel restrictions for the South East were among the measures being considered by ministers.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the Government faces a ‘very difficult, finely-balanced judgment’ on whether to strengthen the coronavirus rules.

Mr Hunt, who now chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said that if ministers did not want to change the law they should consider strengthening the guidance on social-distancing.

He told the BBC Radio 4 programme: ‘It is a very difficult, finely-balanced judgment. The biggest worry is what happens indoor in family gatherings and that’s where the risks do increase.

‘They have to respond to what is happening on the ground. I think they can be clearer about what is and isn’t advisable because it would be an enormous tragedy if we had a spike in deaths at the end of January/February because we took our foot off the pedal this close to having a vaccine.’

The PM declined to rule out a third national lockdown yesterday, but acknowledged that infection rates have increased ‘very much in the last few weeks’.

He reiterated his warnings to people to see the five-day Christmas relaxation period as ‘very much a maximum – that’s not a target people should aim for’.

Mr Johnson added: ‘Keep it short, keep it small, have yourselves a very little Christmas as I said the other night – that is, I’m afraid, the way through this year.

‘Next year I have no doubt that as we roll out the vaccine and all the other things that we’re doing, it will be very, very different indeed.’

Mr Hunt said the decision about whether a third national lockdown would be needed after Christmas is on a ‘knife-edge’.

He added: ‘Looking at the numbers it is difficult to judge at the moment because in the North East and the North West although infection levels are going up they are still much lower than they have been, and the second strain of the virus doesn’t seem to have spread as much in the North as it has in the South. I would say at the moment it is on a knife-edge.’

Large parts of the South East followed London and swathes of Essex and Hertfordshire into the toughest tier three restrictions earlier this week.

The NHS in Kent announced that it was suspending non-urgent hospital procedures as it was treating double the number of patients it had at the peak of the first wave in April.

It confirmed on Friday evening that it would be putting a stop to some planned treatments across the region ‘due to the increase in Covid patients being treated’.

According to the latest figures, the R rate across the UK has risen above 1.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) estimates that the East of England, South East and London all now have R rates well above 1, meaning the virus is spreading exponentially.

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