The UK's new Covid variant could be deadlier and spark stricter and longer lockdown rules, warn government scientists.
New figures have revealed the mutant coronavirus could see the death toll in men in their 60s shoot up by nearly a third.
There is also a "realistic possibility" the mutation that emerged in Kent last September comes with an increased risk of death, according to the Government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday rejected calls to lift lockdown in England early while Covid case numbers remained "forbiddingly high" with a risk of "another big rebound" in the disease.
He revealed the new variant may be associated with "a higher degree of mortality".
Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, said the latest findings suggested it was responsible for the "unexpectedly high" numbers of hospital admissions, especially around London.
"While the recent results showing declining case numbers is good news, and suggest that the variant is controllable via existing measures, these results on deaths imply that burden in hospitals will continue to be high requiring a more prolonged period of restrictions," he said.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, a former government chief scientific adviser and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said even stricter measures may be needed if cases do not continue falling "at pace".
This could result in a dreaded fourth lockdown with new, stricter rules.
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"Decisions are going to have to be made on the basis of the evidence," he told BBC news.
"If the evidence shows that the decrease in cases isn't continuing, then clearly policymakers will have to consider much tougher measures."
It was already known that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original – leading to a tightening of restrictions across the UK from late December onwards.
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But the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned it could cause deaths in men over 60 to rise by nearly a third.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has reportedly written to chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty calling for the gap between vaccine doses to be reduced to six weeks.
The private letter, seen by the BBC, said the current plans of people waiting up to 12 weeks for a second dose – which Health Secretary Matt Hancock said is supported by data from an Israeli study – are "difficult to justify".
It said: "The absence of any international support for the UK's approach is a cause of deep concern and risks undermining public and the profession's trust in the vaccination programme."
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