By Dan Holland & Alex Metcalfe LDRS

North East health bosses have warned that the new strain of covid-19 is “very likely” to have reached our region already.

Public health directors from seven councils north of Teesside say that, while there is no clear proof of the new virus variant spreading here yet, they believe it is already present in the region.

The experts also warned people not to spend Christmas Day with anyone who has travelled from a Tier 4 area.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the new strain of Covid, which is more transmissible than previous kinds, was thought to be behind surging infection rates in the South East of England – and imposed a tougher tier of measures on London and surrounding areas.

However, North-east councils stopped short on Monday of following Greater Manchester and the West Midlands in telling people to self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days if they have anyone travelled back here from the capital, large parts of the South East, or Wales.

The advice was issued by the public health directors for County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, and Sunderland.

They said: “This weekend has seen our focus move to a new strain of coronavirus which is being transmitted at an even faster rate than the original covid-19 disease and we ask everyone to be extra careful over social distancing, social contacts and general hygiene over the festive period.

“While there is no clear evidence that the new strain is yet spreading in the North-east as it is in Kent and the South East, it is very likely already to be present.

“It is important to remember that covid continues to be a potent threat in its original form and so this latest variant needs to be tackled in exactly the same way, with anyone who has travelled from a Tier 4 area being particularly vigilant to protect their loved ones.”

Government chiefs say they currently have no evidence that the covid variant is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality – with investigations into the mutation continuing.

However, scientists have warned the new variant could be up to 70% more transmissible than the original virus.

More than double

Teesside recorded 296 new cases of covid today (Monday) – more than twice as many as yesterday (133), Saturday (129), and Friday (129).

When contacted on Monday, public health chiefs in Stockton, Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland did not comment further on the new mutation of the virus.

The seven public health chiefs north of Teesside urged people to “double down” on what they’d been doing so far through hand hygiene, face coverings and staying two metres apart.

They added: “We should all act as if we have got the virus to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, particularly those who are most vulnerable, while doing our utmost not to place an already busy NHS under further strain.

“Anyone with symptoms should also book a test as soon as possible and follow the guidance around self-isolation until the result is known and thereafter if it comes back positive.

“The virus will continue to mutate and Hands, Face, Space is proven to be the best defence at least until the population has been vaccinated.

“We know how difficult this is, especially at a time of the year when families traditionally come together to celebrate Christmas.

“Our advice remains – just because the Tier 3 rules now allow three households to meet on Christmas Day doesn’t mean we should.

“If you do then you still need to do so responsibly, so please follow the guidance, make sure windows are open, keep the visit short and do not hug others outside your own household.

“A Christmas bubble should not be formed with anyone from an area currently in Tier 4.

“We thank everyone who has been doing their bit for so long, and we know everyone desperately wishes we could see an end to the restrictions, but it’s more important than ever that we all put in that extra effort to keep our friends and families as safe as possible in the coming weeks.”

Asked during a government press conference on Monday afternoon whether people should self isolate for 10 days if they have left Tier 4 areas, as had been advised by health officials Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said that the new variant of the virus had already spread around the country – and could not be completely kept out of other areas.

He added: “We know there are cases everywhere, it’s not as though we can stop this getting into other places.

“The message that has been very clear, and I want to reinforce it, is “stay local”.

“People should not be travelling around the country at the moment. Stay local.”