Health officials say they have identified a new strain of coronavirus in the UK, as a soaring number of cases has pushed several areas in the South East into into Tier 3 lockdown.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty have stressed that at present there is nothing to suggest that the new variant causes more severe disease or that vaccines would be ineffective.

The strain was identified due to Public Health England’s (PHE) enhanced monitoring following the increase in cases seen in Kent and London. The variant has been named ‘VUI – 202012/01’ (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020).

As of 13 December, 1,108 cases with this variant have been identified, predominantly in the South and East of England.

PHE said it is working with partners to investigate and plans to share its findings over the next two weeks, but also stressed that there is no evidence to suggest that the strain has any impact on disease severity, antibody response or vaccine efficacy.

Also, while high numbers of cases of the variant virus have been recorded in some areas where there is also a high incidence of COVID-19, it is not yet known whether the variant is responsible for these increased numbers of cases.

“The best way to stop infection is to stick to the rules – wash our hands, wear a face covering and keep our distance from others,” stressed Dr Susan Hopkins, Test and Trace and PHE joint medical advisor.

As of tomorrow, almost 11 million in London and areas of Essex and Hertfordshire will be in the highest level of the current lockdown structure, in a bid to rein in rising rates of the virus.