THE SOUTH African Covid variant threatens to cause a third wave in the UK, a leading expert has warned.
The highly transmissible strain is believed to be at the root of rising infection rates across Europe.
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A string of countries were plunged back into Covid lockdown in the middle of March 2021, which experts say the UK should not ignore.
Daily cases are as high as 37,000 in France, 22,000 in Italy and 16,000 in Germany compared with the UK’s 5,000.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, who is a former chief scientific adviser to the Government, told Times Radio: “Just across the Channel we are seeing many European countries well into a third wave of infection.
“The average number of cases per day is about 5,000 in the UK – and is rather persistently stuck there at the moment – in France the average number of cases is nearly 37,000 cases a day.
“The risk of the moment is that the South African variant becomes more prevalent, as it is in some parts of Europe.
“We’ve only got to look overseas to see that there’s good reasons to be cautious.”
The South African variant, named 501YV2, is feared to be at least 50 per cent more contagious.
Studies have shown that vaccines are around 30 per cent less effective against it, having been developed when the original coronavirus strain was dominant.
Although it has been found in the UK over 300 times, it has not taken off considerably, which experts say is because it is competing with the dominant Kent strain.
But the risk is Brits will import new cases of the variant from abroad, as well as other new strains that evolve.
Foreign holidays could be banned until August in order to prevent new Covid variants coming in, with a new law coming into force this week which fines anyone who leaves England before June 30 without a “good reason” £5,000.
CAUTION WITH EASING
Prof Walport said that there is “good reason to be cautious” as Covid-19 restrictions are eased.
The lockdown easing is taking a giant step today, as the stay-at-home guidance is lifted, allowing groups of up to six, or two households, to meet outside in England, with social distancing.
Outdoor team sports and activities, such as tennis and golf, also return from today, with people able to head to their local sports clubs again.
Each step on the road out of lockdown can only take place providing the vaccine programme continues successfully, no new variants of concern emerge, there is no sign of a surge in hospitalisations and the jabs are working.
It is planned that all Covid restrictions will be lifted in June, paving the way for normality.
However, Mr Johnson has warned that it is likely that the third wave engulfing Europe would make its way to the UK.
Speaking to broadcasters in Preston last Monday, he said: “Previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, I’m afraid it washes up on our shores as well and expect we will feel those effects in due course.”
During a discussion at the Conservatives’ virtual spring forum on Saturday, the PM said “bitter experience” has shown a wave like the one in Europe would hit the UK “three weeks later”.
Other experts say another wave of “inevitable” infections could hit as early as July.
One member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned that there was a “likelihood” that Brits could witness a third wave of the virus in the summer months.
Professor Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, told Sky News: “Britain has got its act together, the concern is as this third wave is going on elsewhere, that will generate new variations.
“Even within Britain there is a likelihood of a third wave in potentially July and August time when we do unlock society.”
He said infections could occur in people in the summer who are less susceptible to severe disease, such as young people.
His comments echoed that of Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, who has said the UK will “definitely” see another wave of coronavirus wave.
He predicted a third wave will sweep in, despite Britain’s massive vaccination programme which has already reached more than 30 million people – half the adult population.
But the PM Mr Johnson has said he sees “absolutely nothing in the data” to halt the easing of the lockdown, despite the threat of a spike in infections.
He said the “key difference” of unlocking this time is that the rise in prevalence should be “sufficiently mitigated” by the successful vaccine rollout.