Six new cases emerge as Russia becomes latest country to tighten controls on travel from Britain
Pedestrians wearing marks in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The daily number of Covid cases passed 3,000 for the first time this month. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA
Five cases of the new coronavirus variant spreading fast across the UK have been found in Japan, and one case has been confirmed in France, while Russia has become the latest country to impose stricter quarantine on travellers from Britain.
Japan has avoided the huge infection numbers seen in countries from the US to Europe, but cases are rising sharply and daily numbers passed 3,000 for the first time this month.
The five people infected with the more highly transmissible form of Covid-19 had all recently arrived from the UK. They have been quarantined, Japanese media reported, and health officials are trying to trace their contacts and possible routes of infection.
France’s first case of the more contagious coronavirus variant is a Frenchman in the town of Tours, in the Centre-Val de Loire region in the western part of the country, who had arrived from London on 19 December. The French health ministry said he was asymptomatic and was currently self-isolating.
The patient was tested in hospital on 21 December and found to have contracted the strain of the virus known as VOC 202012/01.
“The health authorities have carried out contact-tracing for the health professionals taking care of the patient,” the ministry said in a statement. Any of their contacts that were seen as vulnerable would similarly be isolated, the statement said.
In addition to the case, “to date, several positive samples that may suggest the VOC 202012/01 variant are being sequenced” by the specialist laboratories of the Pasteur Institute, the ministry added.
Japan had already banned entry to travellers from the UK apart from returning Japanese nationals and residents. France had just agreed a deal to ease a travel ban on people coming from the UK.
The new variant has brought tighter travel controls around the world. Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, have temporarily closed their borders entirely. Dozens of others from El Salvador to Finland have also blocked travellers from the UK or those with British nationality.
Where travel is still possible it is increasingly likely to come with tighter controls. Russia brought in two-week mandatory quarantine for people arriving from Britain, the Interfax news agency reported, after earlier suspending flights to and from the country.
Japan expects to start a vaccination programme in the new year. The country of 126 million people has struck deals to buy 290m vaccine doses from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna – enough for 145 million people.
But none of them have yet been approved by its regulators, and so for now Japanese authorities are still battling to control transmission.
The prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, urged people to stay at home for new year, an extended national holiday, when people traditionally travel to see friends and relatives around the country.
The new variant, which has been responsible for plunging parts of the UK into near-lockdown levels of restrictions over Christmas, has already been detected from Australia – despite extremely strict border controls – to Denmark.
A second highly transmissible variant of coronavirus, which is spreading in South Africa, has also reached the UK. Scientists believe it may hit younger people harder and be slightly more resistant to vaccines.
However, research is still continuing to confirm the threat posed by the variant, which does not appear to provoke more serious symptoms or require different treatment.
There are also some fears that the more numerous individual mutations of the South African variant may make it able to re-infect individuals who have already caught the virus and recovered.
• Additional reporting by Nadeem Badshah