Britons have been urged to wear face masks on public transport amid the rapid spread of the Arcturus variant of Covid.
The variant, known as XBB.1.16, currently accounts for one in 40 new cases in the UK.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) classed the strain – a subvariant of Omicron – as a “variant of interest” on April 17. It has been reported in 33 countries but is most prevalent in India.
Epidemiologists have cautioned that the “global risk assessment” for Arcturus “low” – meaning it is unlikely to trigger another deadly wave of infection.
Arcturus is also not considered more severe than previous Covid
But Professor Stephen Griffin, chair of Independent SAGE, told MailOnline that the public should still consider wearing face coverings to reduce transmission of the virus.
“This may seem like a throwback to last year, but the reality is the virus continues to do harm and those least able to cope continue to suffer.
“In the absence of population-scale mitigations... the focus remains upon individual risk which is, for many, now much lower.
“If [the] Government won’t act to enable everyone to 'live' with Covid
, vulnerable people will continue to require precautions and, ideally, others will act with an appropriate level of altruism.”
There are currently 96 Arcturus cases in England and the median age of infection is 74 years old, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
London has the highest number of cases, with 30 reported.
Face coverings are no longer legally mandated on public transport, though some NHS hospitals ask patients to cover up before entering.
The vast majority of Covid
restrictions were scrapped in February 2022.
Prof Griffin, of the University of Leeds, warned that the situation in the UK “remains dynamic with waning immunity and high rates of viral evolution”.
India has seen a significant rise in cases in the past two months, driven by the growth of Arcturus.
Health officials are logging around 10,000 Covid
cases per day – nearly ten times the figure reported in late February. The variant makes up two-thirds of all cases in the country.
Infectious disease epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, of the WHO, has warned people to be “vigiliant”.
“Growth advantage and immune escape are observed for XBB.1.16, including in countries where XBB.1.5 has become dominant recently.
“No changes in severity have been reported and it can cause a full range of disease. Be vigilant.”