Hamzah Khalique-Loonat looks at Matt Hancock’s delays over a dangerous Coronavirus mutation

The Government was aware that the COVID-19 South African variant had spread in communities but did not inform the public for more than two weeks. 

Two initial cases of the South African variant (VOC 202012/02) were identified in the UK on 22 December 2020. Both people who had tested positive for this strain had been in contact with someone who had travelled from South Africa. On 14 January 2021, Public Health England confirmed a case without travel links, which indicated community transmission, had been identified in Walsall, West Midlands.

This conflicted with the information that the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, gave on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 24 January when he said: “There is not what we call community transmission, which is when you find a case, but you can’t find the link back to travel.”

Byline Times asked the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to clarify the Health Secretary’s comments on the Andrew Marr Show but it did not provide a response. 

The approach of the Government towards announcing the presence of the South African variant contrasts with the immediate announcement of the P.1 variant, which originated in Brazil.

The Health Secretary announced the South African variant was present and spreading in communities to the public on 1 February at a Downing Street briefing, 18 days after the case in Walsall was confirmed. “We have now identified 105 cases of this variant here, 11 of those cases don’t appear to have any links to international travel,” Hancock said.

Following this announcement, door-to-door surge testing was offered in the affected areas, which included Hertfordshire, London, Kent, Surrey and the West Midlands. 

NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) minutes from 13 January concluded that “enhanced case detection” should be considered to help locate variants.

Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and SPIM (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling), said when a new variant emerges it is important “to clamp down rapidly,” through testing programmes such as surge, which are “most effective when introduced quickly”.

Dr Tildesley also believes that it is both important and useful that government “gives the public as much information as [it] can, to understand risks”. According to Dr Tildesley, clearly communicated information about the virus and its variants would likely help the public to adjust its behaviour with respect to those risks.

Whilst speaking on a Walsall Council meeting on 4 February, Director of Public Health Walsall, Stephen Gunther, stated the variant was present in Walsall postcode WS2 “in the back end of December”.

The positive-testing individual presented symptoms for COVID-19 and took a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. The test was selected at random for routine sequencing which, in January, took place on 5% of all tests. Sequencing confirmed the variant’s presence in Walsall on 14 January. On the same day, across England, 35 cases of the variant and 12 probable cases were confirmed by Public Health England.

The individual in Walsall did not have any travel links to South Africa, signalling community transmission as early as December. 

Dr Tildesley stated that the Tier 3 restrictions and the national lockdown would likely have reduced transmission rates in Walsall, however, given only 5% of positive tests were sent for sequencing, there was a possibility the variant had spread beyond the individual.

Walsall Council was reportedly informed of the variant’s presence on Thursday 28 January, but this information was embargoed until the Health Secretary’s announcement on 1 February. Neither DHSC nor Walsall Council responded for comment on the reasons behind the reported embargo.


SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) minutes from 28 January state the last available data showed there were 76 cases of the variant, eight of which were not linked to travel – these were picked up through routine random sequencing of positive tests. The Government has since increased the proportion of positive tests that are sent for sequencing.

On 8 February, Health Minister Edward Argar, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, reported there were 147 confirmed cases of the variant.

The approach of the Government towards announcing the presence of the South African variant contrasts with the immediate announcement of the P.1 variant, which originated in Brazil. That information was circulated via press release on Sunday 28 February and the Health Secretary held a press conference at Downing Street the following day.

A spokesperson for DHSC told Byline Times: “The UK has one of the best genomic sequencing programmes in the world, allowing us to continuously track and monitor the emergence of new variants. Our approach has always been informed by a range of advice from our world-class scientific and medical experts and, as new evidence has emerged, we have acted decisively to stop the spread of the virus.

“This has included increased testing, additional genomic sequencing and enhanced contact tracing so we can quickly identify new cases and prevent further transmission.

“Testing will continue to play a significant role in our coronavirus response, alongside the vaccination programme, by identifying asymptomatic cases and helping us break the chains of transmission”.

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