A study suggesting a coronavirus variant originating in Spain now accounts for most UK cases has highlighted the weakness of the government’s travel policies over the summer, experts have said.
Research from scientists in Switzerland, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, has revealed that a new variant of coronavirus, known as 20A.EU1, appears to have cropped up in Spain during the summer and has since spread to multiple European countries, including the UK.
“In Wales and Scotland the variant was at 80% in mid-September, whereas frequencies in Switzerland and England were around 50% at that time,” the authors said.
The variant appeared in the UK in the middle of July when quarantine-free travel to Spain was allowed for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, the new variant of the virus is now common in countries across Europe, meaning travellers to and from many countries could since have brought it back to the UK.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Emma Hodcroft, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Basel and lead author of the study, stressed there was no sign as yet that the strain was more dangerous that other variants, or that it would hamper the development of a vaccine. “It’s not very different from the variants that circulated in spring,” she said.
Earlier this year experts and members of the public alike raised a number of concerns around international travel, with reports of crowding at airports, a lack of quarantine information, and few checks on test-and-trace forms.
Prof Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, said there were flaws in the UK government’s approach to travel over the summer. “Numbers were really low and that was our chance to keep them low,” she said. “The virus moves when people move.”