The new, faster-spreading coronavirus variant makes up the majority of new cases in the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told Sky News.
A recent surge of COVID-19 cases is largely due to the variant which may be up to 70% more infectious than the original one, Mr Hancock said.
“The ‘suppress the virus’ bit has got a whole lot harder since the new variant really got going over December,” he said.
“Now the majority of the new cases in the UK are the new variant. It is much, much easier to transmit from one person to another.”
The faster transmission had put extreme pressure on the NHS, Mr Hancock added.
“It is absolutely critical that people follow the rules and do everything they can to stop the spread, particularly of the new variant of this virus that transmits so much faster.”
“So, the challenge of suppressing the virus has got harder, but thankfully, the cavalry has arrived in terms of not one, but two vaccines – and we’ve got to get them into people’s arms at thee speed at which they can be manufactured”.
He was referring to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that today became the second coronavirus jab to be approved for UK use.
Scientists predicted the new variant, which has driven tougher restrictions across the country, would quickly become the dominant one.
Mr Hancock will announce changes to COVID-19 rules in response to the rise in a statement to MPs later today.
Fears of the new variant, which was first found in the UK, has caused dozens of countries to restrict travel with Britain.
Another new variant thought to have originated in South Africa was found soon after the first.
It is also far more spreadable than the original one and has since spread to other parts of the world – most recently confirmed in Australia.
Since news of the new variants emerged, the proportion of people testing positive for COVID-19 has rapidly grown.
A delay in reporting due to Christmas has likely inflated those figures, with Tuesday’s numbers including positive tests confirmed before 25 December.
But Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, said they were “largely a reflection of a real increase” and were extremely concerning.
Hospitals across the country echoed this worry.