The new strain, known as ‘VUI (Variant Under Investigation) -202012/01,’ was officially acknowledged on December 14, with authorities saying it has 20 changes or mutations from the original version and is believed to be 70 percent more transmissible.
It was first spotted in September, and a quarter of new infections in the capital London in November were caused by it. By mid-December, the number rose to almost two-thirds.
Sharon Vu, who lives with her husband and two children in London, said: “My relatives and I are more cautious about the new strain.”
A view of London Bridge on December 29, 2020. Photo by AFP/Tolga Akmen.
She said after almost a year of living with the novel coronavirus everyone had become familiar with epidemic prevention and working remotely, her family had stopped worrying too much about Covid-19, and she and her friends had continued to meet occasionally.
“But this time we strictly follow preventive measures. I really feel unsafe and have been avoiding crowded places. I don’t even go out of the house. When my husband and sons go out for a run or exercise, I repeatedly remind them not to run near pedestrians and keep a distance.”
The new strain has caused unprecedented pressure on the U.K. health system, with the number of Covid-19 patients hospitalized at a record high of more than 20,000.
Britain has the sixth largest number of Covid patients in the world, 2.3 million, with 41,385 people being diagnosed with the infection on December 28, the highest single-day number since the pandemic broke out.
The country has also recorded more than 71,000 deaths.
Since December 20, millions of people in London and most of the southeastern region have been placed under an emergency blockade after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned the pandemic was “out of control.”
People are required to stay at home, gathering outside the home is forbidden, and malls, personal services and non-essential businesses are closed.
While people were rushing to stock up things to last through the pandemic and for the holidays, Sharon did not dare go to the supermarket for fear of getting infected.
She said: “I limit shopping because there is enough food in the house. Moreover, people queuing up for kilometers at the supermarket is the main source of infection.”
She did not organize parties or invite friends to the house for Christmas, though she had decorated it by late November. Though the holiday season was bleak, her family’s health is the first priority, she said.
Paramedics prepare to remove a patient from an ambulance at Guy’s Hospital in London on December 29, 2020. Photo by Photo by AFP/Tolga Akmen.
Tran Xuan Thai, who has lived in London for 12 years, is especially careful when it comes to the health of his two children after learning that the new strain could affect children more than the earlier one.
He said: “My family goes out as usual but with a mask, and washes hands more often. The kids only go to the park for jogging and exercise. I don’t let them go to other public places or shopping malls. Although the level of danger of the new variant is similar to that of the old one, it is best avoided if possible.”
Since Thai is into trading, fear of the mutated virus has affected his business with a number of countries closing off their borders to the U.K. More than 50 countries have banned flights from the nation or tightened entry controls for passengers.
Experts are not sure how far this new strain has spread and the travel bans threaten more economic and psychological pain.
“My year-end shipments have been blocked due to the French closure of their border,” Thai said.
After France closed its border with Britain on December 20 thousands of trucks on either side have been unable to cross the English Channel.
“My driver was allowed to pass after a few days after his test results came back negative.”
Le Ha, who lives in Woking in Surrey County, 30 minutes by train from London, said her life has been affected by the pandemic and the government’s random and inconsistent decision making.
“The government’s decisions on opening and closing businesses keep changing every one or two weeks, and so I cannot make long-term plans for my life or work. All I can do is wait. The situation doesn’t look good.”
Surrey has raised the alarm level to four, the highest so far, following the appearance of the new strain.
Ha said most people have to stay at home, except for those who cannot work remotely, and are only allowed to go out to buy basic necessities like food and medicine.
Restaurants and coffee shops are open but only for takeout orders. Everyone must wear a mask when entering a public building or public transport vehicle. A minimum social distance of two meters is mandatory.
The new strain has made Ha even more worried than earlier, and she has always been vigilant and taken preventive measures such as wearing a mask and washing her hands often.
“What makes me sad is that the new outbreak has occurred during the year-end holidays, and so I cannot meet my relatives and friends. I feel hopeless at times because I understand the pandemic won’t go away for the next few months.”
Lily Vu and her husband, both ethnic Vietnamese living in Leeds in Yorkshire County, 270 km north of London, contracted Covid-19 but do not know if it was the new strain.
They tested positive a few days before London announced the new variant, and their test results did not specify which strain it was.
They recovered after they were quarantined and treated at home. But it will take them a few more weeks to become completely healthy again.
Lily said: “After contracting Covid-19, I feel like I get tired much faster. I don’t have the same stamina as before.
“Also, my husband and I still do not have our sense of smell. The doctor said it might take weeks or months to get it back.”
Leeds city has seen a sharp increase in the number of infections in recent days. Lily said her area is on a level 3 alert for Covid-19 on a four-level scale. Since the pandemic is unpredictable, alert levels can change rapidly.
Pedestrians walk past a bus stop in London with a government message about the coronavirus urging people to take precautions on December 29, 2020. Photo by AFP/Tolga Akmen.
But she and people around her are only slightly more worried than before, Lily said.
“Everybody does everything they can, like washing their hands, wearing masks, not meeting other people, and keeping their distance.”
Thai has the same view that there is no need to worry too much about a new strain of Covid-19 because viruses constantly change.
“I’m more interested in vaccines now,” he said.
On December 2, the U.K. became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine and began a vaccination campaign dubbed ‘V-Day’ (Vaccine Day) on December 8.
Caregivers and elderly people in nursing homes and healthcare workers have been assigned priority.
The government has recently approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the first doses would be administered on January 4.
Thai said: “2020 is a difficult year for everyone in general. What direction 2021 will take is hard to say, but at least we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think everyone should take advantage of the last few days of the year to isolate, rest, regain their energy and think positively about the future.”