On Sunday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was clear when he replied to Andrew Marr’s questioning whether there was any evidence of more Covid variants spreading in the UK.
“No,” he stated, adding: “That’s not what I’ve seen in any of the data. It’s important that we keep following the rules.”
But just hours later, health officials revealed six cases of the Manaus variant of coronavirus had been detected in Britain, including one “mystery” person with the virus, who is now the subject of a frantic hunt.
It’s believed the individual was tested on February 12 or 13, possibly via a home postal test or a test collected from a local authority.
Boris Johnson was adamant on Monday that Britain has “one of the toughest border regimes anywhere in the world for stopping people coming in to this country who may have variants of concern.”
So how did we end up here?
The Brazilian variant
While a different, lesser South African variant has been in the UK for several weeks, this “worrying” P.1 Manaus variant was detected in Brazil and in travellers from Brazil to Japan in January, and is linked to a surge of cases in Manaus late last year.
Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director at Public Health England, said the P1 Brazilian variant is similar to the variant from South Africa, with their mutations thought to increase transmissibility.
“Manaus in particular reported that a number of individuals were reinfected with this variant, and therefore that suggests that having had prior immunity from primary infection wasn’t enough to reduce infection and transmission,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“And that may also impact on the vaccine.”
Professor Jason Leitch told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Monday morning: “…The reason why we’re worried scientifically is we’re not absolutely certain that this version is amenable to the natural immunity some people already have and the artificial immunity we’re creating with vaccination.”
However, the prime minister, who is not medically trained, has insisted: “We don’t have any reason at the present time to think that our vaccines are ineffective against these new variants of all types.”
The UK closed its borders and made it a legal requirement for all visitors from red-list countries to quarantine in hotels for 10 days from February 15.
But – as pointed out by some commentators – this policy was not introduced until 44 days after the Brazilian P.1 variant was first discovered in Japan.
Direct flights from the country to the UK have been banned since January 15, but indirect routes transferring in different countries have revealed yawning gaps in Britain’s containment.
UK nationals or residents have continued to be allowed to return via indirect routes as long as they quarantine for 10 days. Initially there was no mandatory testing on arrival and arrivals were permitted to travel to their home or another location to begin their self-isolation. It’s likely that many people made this journey on public transport, mixing with the general population.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, said the current situation in the UK “highlights failures in quarantine policy”.
She told BBC Breakfast: “Sage has advised that, unless we had a comprehensive, managed quarantine policy at our borders, something like this would happen.
“But unfortunately it’s something that we’ve been quite complacent about; now we’re just seeing the consequences of that.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it shows the government has not “secured our borders in the way we should have done”.
Speaking at a virtual meeting with Welsh businesses to mark St David’s Day, Mr Starmer said: “It demonstrates the slowness of the Government to close off even the major routes, but also the unwillingness to confront the fact that the virus doesn’t travel by direct flights.
“We know from last summer that a lot of virus came in from countries where it didn’t originate in, but people were coming indirect, and that’s the way people travel.”
It comes as data discussed at a recent Home Affairs Select Committee session revealed that just 1% of UK arrivals are having to go into quarantine.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt also called for an examination of “what has gone wrong” in tracing variants.
“If we are going to protect the road map out of lockdown then the name of the game is going to be stop new variants coming in, some of which may end up being immune to the new vaccines,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme.
“Where we need to get to is a much, much more thorough combination of test and trace and genetic sequencing so we are not just testing the people who have been near someone who tested positive, but we also are working out where the original infection happened and which variant it is.
“You can only do that if you bring the cases right down.”
The ‘mystery person’
The Gloucestershire cluster was said to originate from one individual who travelled back from Brazil and arrived in London on February 10 – five days before the government’s quarantine hotel policy came into force.
The traveller isolated at home with the rest of their household. One member was understood to have developed symptoms before getting a test.
It is understood there were four positive tests in total in that household, two of which were confirmed with genetic sequencing to be the P.1 variant.
But officials are awaiting the results of sequencing on the outstanding two tests to see if they were infected by the Manaus strain.
The remaining unlocated case is not believed to be linked to the others because the virus was found to have slight genetic differences.
The Scottish residents who flew to Aberdeen from Brazil via Paris and London on Friday, all tested positive while self-isolating. Other passengers who were on the same flight to Aberdeen are now being traced.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said authorities were working with the postal service to locate the person, but said they did not know whether they had contracted the virus in the UK or abroad.
“We are working with the postal service to try and get other data to try and locate them, and this appeal is a belt and braces to try and make sure we locate them as quickly as possible,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Public Health England (PHE) says the individual being searched for did not complete their registration card after taking a coronavirus test, so their contact details are unknown.
A spokesperson for the prime minister told reporters at a briefing on Monday that it was “very, very rare” that test cards were not filled out correctly.
The Home Office did not respond to HuffPost UK when asked how often incomplete forms are submitted. Separately, in a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has demanded to know how many other passengers have failed to fill in their test registration card details.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, said the situation highlighted “gaps” in the system. She told BBC’s Today programme that the government should be “learning lessons” from countries such as South Korea that have extra precautions including testing of arrivals at airports.
She added: “There is a concern that the government is raising expectations about summer holidays that they may not be able to meet.”
Cooper said many travellers – like the individuals in question – would have taken “indirect flights” from Brazil and that that situation highlighted “gaps” in the system.
Downing Street has said schools in England will reopen on Monday as planned despite the discovery of a number of cases of a Brazilian variant of the coronavirus.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Schools will reopen on March 8 as we set out in the road map.”
The spokesman said that included south Gloucestershire where two cases had been found.
“We have deployed the extra surge testing in Gloucestershire to ensure that if there are any other cases in that local area we can identify then and ensure those people are isolated,” he said.