Reading newspaper articles and social media comments this morning, once again I am torn between panic and complacency. Panic induced by continuing reports and discussion about a super new, fast spreading mutant variant of the COVID-19 virus. Complacency risked by those insisting this is all some conspiracy. Some even claiming that the mutation has bene invented to enforce compliance with authoritarian rules.
It is worth digging a little bit further, The truth is that the strain seems to have first emerged in the UK around about September. This has been identified through later sample testing. According to the Government’s information page, as at Sunday,
“Backwards tracing using the genetic evidence suggests this variant emerged in September 2020 and then circulated at very low levels in the population until mid-November.”
Interestingly that time period overlaps with the second national lockdown and so might partially but not completely explain the initial slowness. However by mid-November, something was happening. Despite the national measures, infection rates were not falling in Kent and this seemed to correlate with the presence of the new strain.
By Friday, analysis confirming that the genetic make up of the strain did make it easier to transmit was shared with Government ministers and this seems to have triggered the move to Tier 4 allocation, bringing forward the Welsh lockdown and the U-Turn on Christmas relaxation over the weekend.
However, I am not convinced that the facts support headlines and actions around panic, closing of borders and talk of monster mutations. Journalists talking about the “danger” of the new strain may be jumping to conclusions.
The Government information page insists still that:
“We currently have no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality – but we are continuing investigations to understand this better.” 
Furthermore, the advice remains that:
“The way to control this virus is the same, whatever the variant. It will not spread if we avoid close contact with others. Wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance from others, and reduce your social contacts.” 
I suspect this is because the increased transmission is not so much to do with the ability of the virus to travel over greater ranges or through cloth masks more easily but its ability to attach itself to a host. In other words, if I stand 2 metres away from you wearing a mask, the virus isn’t suddenly more likely to overcome that barrier. However if I do stand close to you without a mask and I have the virus and transmit it to you then once transmitted it is more likely to infect you and make you ill.
Meanwhile, we have heard horror stories about the pace at which this strain spreads with the magically bone chilling figure of “70%” being put about by our erstwhile Prime Minister. However, that looks like a classic example of clumsy, ill thought out communication on the part of Boris.
See these comments from the BBC:
The figure mentioned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson was that the variant may be up to 70% more transmissible. He said this may be increasing the R number – which indicates if an epidemic is growing or shrinking – by 0.4.
That 70% number appeared in a presentation by Dr Erik Volz, from Imperial College London, on Friday.
During the talk he said: “It is really too early to tell… but from what we see so far it is growing very quickly, it is growing faster than [a previous variant] ever grew, but it is important to keep an eye on this.”
There is no “nailed on” figure for how much more infectious the variant may be. Scientists, whose work is not yet public, have told me figures both much higher and much lower than 70%.
But there remain questions about whether it is any more infectious at all.
“The amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission,” said Prof Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham.
So, we know from the gene analysis that this strain is equipped to spread more efficiently and so that when we see a correlation with increased cases, it is reasonable to suspect that it has some causal effect but how much is questionable. And that is because there are other factors that could affect case numbers at play.
First of all, there’s the simple factor of coming in and out of lockdowns. As I have stated many times, if you suppress something, you can expect it to start rising again once suppression is removed. We have just done that by ending the second lockdown.
Furthermore, the end of the second lockdown coincided with the Christmas season. What that means is that we have Christmas shopping squeezed into a shorter period. Then there will be increased mobility as people return home, for example from University, for Christmas. I suspect that alongside that non-compliance will be increasing as people get in the festive mood and that will also be encouraged by the risk of the vaccine leading to greater complacency before it has had chance to do its job.
Incidentally, this means we need to return to a long-term issue. If non-compliance is a factor, then simply reintroducing measures that people did not comply with last time is hardly likely to work.
So, in conclusion, the reality on the ground means there is no place for complacency. However those stirring up panic are not helping either and may well make the situation worse. We would do well to respond with caution, being careful to follow measures designed to minimise the spread of the disease. Let’s be careful to love our neighbours, to act responsibly but also to remember that there are other aspects to love, care and protection as well as protecting from one specific virus.