New COVID-19 variant 'might get more intense' across world over coming weeks, warns Michael Baker

The new Covid-19 variant found in the UK is set to become more prevalent across the world due to its more transmissible nature, an epidemiologist says.

Six cases of the recently identified UK variant have been found in New Zealand's managed isolation facilities over the past three days.

Professor Michael Baker said the new strain was always going to make its way here.

"It was inevitable - because once it comes a dominant strain, like it has in the UK, people coming here will obviously bring it with them.

"This new variant will become dominant all over the world over the next couple of weeks and months because it's more infectious."

He said if there was community transmission with the new strain in New Zealand it would be harder to control.

"We've seen figures that it is up to 50 to 70 percent more infectious that means a higher reproduction number which means it would be harder to contain an outbreak if one occurs

"We really want to avoid going into a lockdown but that could easily happen if an outbreak happens with the new variant."

Pre-departure test move was inevitable 

Yesterday, the government announced that from 15 January people arriving form America and the United Kingdom will need to show they've tested negative less than 72 hours before departing.

But many travellers were already taking pre-flight coronavirus tests as a requirement for some transit countries, Prof Baker said.

The only main route from the UK to New Zealand which doesn't require a pre-departure test currently, is through Doha.

New Zealanders in the UK are not allowed to transit through Japan, China or Hong Kong, and currently need a negative test before transiting through Singapore.

Prof Baker said the new requirement was an inevitable shift in policy.

"Almost all airline routes into New Zealand require testing before you travel through them so I'm not sure if this new requirement will change much for people trying to travel here," Prof Baker said.

"We have several hundred of people travelling here each day and lots are coming from countries where the pandemic is out of control and it might get more intense over the next couple of weeks."

He said it made sense for the government to constantly review standards at the border.

"Hopefully the pre-departure test will encourage people to take more precautions before they get on the flight - that would mean basically limiting your social contacts wearing mask and having a period of home quarantine at home before you get on the plane to New Zealand," he said.

"Every time an infected person gets on a plane they can infect others on the flight staff at MIQ facilities, and we have had border failures and they are driven by the number of infected people arriving here, so the more we can turn down that tap the better for NZ."

However, testing did not always pick up people in the early stages of infection so positive cases could still arrive at the border, he said.