Matt Hancock challenged over ‘mutant strain’

Matt Hancock challenged to reveal details of so-called ‘mutant strain’


Recovery today challenged Health Secretary Matt Hancock to reveal the details of the strain of SARS COV-19 that he announced on Monday as a new and more infectious mutation, as evidence emerged that those claims may have been seriously misleading.

On Tuesday 15 December, Professor Nick Loman of the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG UK) consortium, identified the new set of mutations as VUI – 202012/0. He confirmed that it is not new, as COG UK identified it in September, and there is no proof that it is more infectious. As Professor Sharon Peacock, COG Director, pointed out: “We are still dealing with very thin evidence at the moment about this variant.”

Dr Maria van Kerkhove, the technical lead of COVID-19 response and the head of emerging diseases and zoonosis unit at WHO, has also confirmed that the strain involved has been circulating for many months, though she referred to it as N501Y.

Recovery is challenging Matt Hancock to answer these key questions:

  • Why did he announce this as a new strain on the eve of the tier review when it appears to have been circulating for several months (and may have existed for months more before it was identified)?
  • Why has he made headlines with the news that it’s more infectious when the experts who identified the strain say that we don‘t have evidence for that yet?
  • Will he publish the evidence he has for that so his claims can be independently verified?
  • In the words of the Washington Post, “At a news conference Monday evening, neither Hancock nor England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, released enough data to help the public understand the significance of the new variant.” Does he now regret the way that this announcement was handled, given that it has attracted international criticism?
  • With millions of lives and livelihoods at stake, does he now consider that the statement he made to Parliament about the ‘new’ strain may have been misleading?
  • Does he retain confidence in the Government advisers who briefed him on it?
  • With even the experts at the World Health Organisation who are responsible for tackling the virus apparently confused by the information that the DHSC has provided over the details of the ‘new’ strain, will he remind his department to prioritise accuracy and the clear communication of the known facts over sensationalist language that makes headlines?

“There is a lot of trivial diversity in the spike protein.  Over 20000 variants have been reported,” commented Professor David Livermore, Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of East Anglia. “What is the hard evidence that this new variant really is so different against this background of great diversity? Apparently VUI202012/0 was first found in September. It’s not clear where it came from or how long it had existed previously. The delay before it expanded doesn’t fit with super-infectiousness. Any variant of SAR COV-19 might expand swiftly because it gets into a part of the country which has had a relatively low prior exposure to SARS-CoV2 – like  Kent or East Anglia – rather than because it has any particular biological advantage. As ever, talk of ‘exponential spread’ is misleading. We have now repeatedly seen that as exposure rises, spread slows.”

Jon Dobinson, Campaign Director of Recovery, commented, “The evidence suggests that Matt Hancock may have needlessly terrified millions of people by giving misleading information about a variant of the virus which has existed for months. With millions of lives and livelihoods at stake, it is imperative that the Government is seen to be carrying out a balanced and responsible public health campaign. This looks like irresponsible scaremongering. It increasingly seems as though Matt Hancock and his advisors are carrying out an all-out marketing campaign for harsh restrictions rather than taking a balanced and proportionate approach. It is now clear that he and the Government have been guilty of hugely damaging errors in tackling this virus. Are they trying to sustain the panic to avoid being held to account for the damage they have done? That would be criminally irresponsible, given the damage that their actions are causing. But it is increasingly hard to interpret their actions in any other way.”



MUTATIONS IN SARS COV-19 – the technical detail:

Out of 10,333 spike protein sequences analysed to date, 8,155 proteins have one or more mutations. A total of 9,654 mutations have been observed that correspond to 400 distinct mutation sites. The receptor binding domain (RBD) which is involved in the interactions with human ACE-2 receptor and causes infection leading to the COVID-19 disease comprised [sic] 44 mutations that included residues within 3.2 Å interacting distance from the ACE-2 receptor.


1. Behave with humanity

2. Give equal regard to all lives

3. Hold a comprehensive public inquiry and allow public debate

4. Safeguard all that makes life worth living

5. Ensure a decent future for our children

In difficult times, the UK needs to see the best from its leaders. Recovery’s Five Reasonable Demands for good government during Covid-19 are backed by the overwhelming majority of people1 and form the basis for our campaigns. They offer a positive way through the pandemic that minimises damage by ensuring balanced and responsible decision-making


Recovery launched on Thursday 29th October as a broad-based coalition of people from all walks of life, many different backgrounds and the spectrum of mainstream political views who are concerned about the effect the response to Covid-19 is having on all our lives. It has already made a significant impact on the debate.

Recovery calls for balance and moderation in our response to Covid-19, backed by a proper public debate, and a comprehensive public inquiry which looks at the impact Government policies have had on: Covid-19 mortality; other killer diseases like cancer; mental health; the economy; and the future for children and young people.

The campaign is backed by senior Doctors and NHS staff, leading authorities in epidemiology and infectious diseases, mental health experts, entrepreneurs and leaders of business, sporting stars and world champions, TV celebrities and chefs, stars of the performing arts, bands and musicians.

It has specialist groups led by leading experts and household names looking at specific areas of concern, including:

  • Medicine and Science.
  • Mental Health.
  • Arts and Hospitality.
  • Sports and Fitness.
  • Small and Medium-Size Enterprises
  • Education
  • Students


Professor David Livermore

Professor Livermore is Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of East Anglia. After working at the London Hospital Medical College from 1980 to 1997, he joined the Public Health Laboratory Service (later PHE), and became director of its Antibiotic Resistance Monitoring and Reference Laboratory before taking up his curremt role in 2011.


Jon Dobinson

Jon co-founded Recovery and has been Campaign Director since it launched in October. He is CEO of Other Creative Ltd, which has helped causes and charities including Freedom From Torture, Amnesty International, 38 Degrees, The Children’s Society and the RNLI as well as major commercial companies. He is a former Secretary-General of the International Society for Human Rights (UK), the UN-affiliated human rights organisation.



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