Scientific advisers have warned ministers they believe the new variant of COVID-19 spreads more quickly than previous strains, Sky News understands.
Government scientists are expected to meet next week to draw up a strategy for how Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions could be strengthened in response.
It comes amid reports that cabinet ministers were due to meet tonight to discuss evidence that indicated the new strain was spreading faster than what was previously thought.
According to reports, Boris Johnson was holding emergency talks with his cabinet over potential travel restrictions for people in London and the South East.
News of the meeting prompted speculation that a news conference could be called on Saturday to announce new guidance on travel over the festive period.
The identification of the “new variant” of COVID-19 – which is believed to be causing the faster spread in the South East – was announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock this week.
More than 1,000 cases of the strain had been found, “predominantly in the south of England”, Mr Hancock told the House of Commons.
He said the new variant had been spreading faster than the existing strain of coronavirus and is believed to be fuelling the “very sharp, exponential rises” in cases across the South East.
But he sought to downplay fears, saying there was currently no evidence that the new variant would not respond to the COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out across the country.
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And, he said, there was “currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease”.
The health secretary said the fast rate of the new spread could mean this variant becomes the most dominant nationwide.
“The best way to describe it is, imagine a giant oak tree, and then a little branch that breaks off from that tree. Then that branch becomes the main trunk and the main artery of that tree,” he explained.
Mr Hancock added that government scientists were studying the new variant at its Porton Down facility.
A spokesman for the prime minister said he was unable to comment immediately on the reports of a potential emergency toughening of restrictions.
Mr Johnson said on Friday he hoped that England would not need to go into a third lockdown after Christmas, as a number of experts have warned is possible.
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