Mutant variant threatens Christmas: First European case is found in Belgium as South African passengers are BANNED from leaving flight in Holland – but in Heathrow travellers are simply allowed to walk through as normal

Belgium has become the first country in Europe to detect a case of the new ultra-infectious and vaccine resistant Botswana variant as EU chiefs call for an ’emergency brake’ on all travel from southern Africa — and fears of another Christmas lockdown are raised.

Its health ministry said a case was spotted in an unvaccinated young woman who had returned from Egypt 11 days ago, suggesting it is already widespread in Africa. 

Passengers flying to Holland from South Africa were banned from getting off the plane as the continent tightened its borders in an attempt to shut out the strain which scientists have described as the ‘worst variant ever’.

Yet, British arrivals from the variant’s epicentre Johannesburg were left to mingle with hundreds of others as they flew into Heathrow on the last flights out of Africa before the red list was re-imposed at midday. Passengers revealed they were not tested or questioned about their travel history.

Those coming from variant epicentre Johannesburg said they faced ‘no additional precautions’. Others told how they were getting around the ban by flying to other countries and then to the UK. 

Ursula von der Leyen called for the EU to pull the ’emergency brake’ on travel from southern Africa on the back of the announcement, warning that the strain could be world-dominant in months. 

The EU Commission president said: ‘All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clearer understanding about the danger posed by this new variant. It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively and united.’

Belgium’s health ministry said a case was spotted in an unvaccinated young woman who got tested after suffering symptoms. She had returned from Egypt 11 days ago. 

Israel has also detected a case in a vaccinated individual, meaning it has now been confirmed in three continents. The Israeli had returned from Malawi. Two other suspected cases are being investigated.

In a glimmer of hope, the South African Medical Association said that all cases of the Botswana variant had been in young people and caused only mild illness. It described the global response as a ‘storm in a teacup’. 

But Sajid Javid warned the pandemic was ‘far from over’ after No10’s experts admitted the new super strain could already be in the UK and make vaccines 40 per cent less effective.

In a sombre statement to MPs in the House of Commons this morning, the Health Secretary said the new B.1.1.529 strain posed a ‘substantial risk to public health’ and described its ultra-transmissibility and vaccine-dodging abilities as of ‘huge international concern’. 

Vaccines adviser Professor Adam Finn earlier raised the prospect of lockdown curbs being reintroduced, warning that people must be braced for a ‘change in restrictions’ if the variant spreads to the UK.  

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK’s Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), warned it was ‘possible’ the strain had already entered Britain. She said people ‘are arriving every day’ to the UK from countries where the strain had been spotted. 

Some 10,000 people are thought to have arrived from South Africa alone in the last two weeks where the most cases of the mutant strain have been found. Mr Javid insisted no cases of the strain have been confirmed in the UK but warned the Government is working quickly but with a ‘high degree of uncertainty’ and boosters could not be more important now.  

A flight from South Africa to the Netherlands was barred entry into the country today. Passengers are pictured above waiting in their seats

Top experts said that if the strain spreads faster and can avoid current jabs it ‘will get here’. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested that the aim of the travel restrictions is to ‘slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country’.

The World Health Organization is currently holding an emergency meeting to discuss the variant, which could be named ‘Nu’ within hours in line with its Greek alphabet naming system for Covid variants. 

The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta — suggesting it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible than any version before it. It has caused an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa.   

In response, Mr Javid announced last night that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.

Israel was the first country to follow suit, also red-listing the six nations after a first case was detected in the country today. The European Commission has recommended an ’emergency brake’ on travel from countries in Southern Africa. 

Speaking in the House of Commons this morning, Mr Javid said it ‘is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries’. 

He said: ‘We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health. 

‘The variant has an unusual large number of mutations. It’s the only variant with this designation, making it higher priority than Beta.

‘It shares many of the features of the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants.

‘Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it.

‘It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve.’ 

The Health Secretary added the Government is continuing to assess its travel restrictions with countries with strong links to South Africa and urged the public to book their booster doses as soon as possible. 

He said: ‘We are continuing to make assessments, including about those countries with strong travel links to South Africa and we’re working with our international partners — including South Africa and the European Union — to ensure an aligned response.

‘But this variant is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over.

‘We must continue to act with caution, and do all we can to keep this virus at bay including, once you are eligible, getting your booster shot.

‘We’ve already given over 16 million booster shots.

‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’

Earlier, Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta.

‘And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation, there’s new ones we haven’t seen before, so we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.

‘So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite it’s definitely the most complex variant before.’

She added: ‘It is the most worrying we’ve seen.’ 

No cases have been detected in the UK so far but everyone who has returned from South Africa in the past 10 days will be contacted and asked to take a test. 

At the moment, around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but it is expected this figure could increase as the festive period begins.

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘If it spreads more quickly then yes it will get here, the travel ban will delay its arrival but if it spreads more quickly the lesson has surely been from all the variants we’ve seen before that it will get here eventually.

‘We shouldn’t despair, vaccines will be effective, so if you haven’t had your vaccine go and get it, be that the booster, the first dose, the second dose.

‘Secondly there are new medicines coming along… these will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation.

‘We have got much better at controlling the disease in other ways in hospital so it is bad news but it is not doomsday.’ 

Professor Finn said: ‘On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.’ 

In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Shapps said the Government is taking a ‘safety-first approach’ to the new variant.

‘It is important to make sure that you do act immediately and in doing so you get to slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country,’ he told Sky News.

‘That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures – it takes several weeks to do – so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.

‘It is a safety-first approach. We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.’ 

The chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency said the new variant is the most ‘complex’ and ‘worrying’ seen. 

Announcing the travel ban last night, Mr Javid said: ‘The early indication we have of this variant is it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it.

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