“Faced with this new variant, which is probably already in Italy, I fear that severe closures are inevitable,” Walter Ricciardi, a senior Italian government health advisor, told Italian newspaper Il Messaggero in an interview on Monday.
“What makes me angry is that the British had known since September that this variant was in circulation,” he said. “They kept silent, they didn't warn us. Now we need a lockdown. Or at least very severe measures.”
Italy on Sunday was one of the first countries to announce a strict ban on travel from the UK, after British authorities said the new coronavirus strain was “out of control”.
Ricciardi argued that all flights from the UK must now be stopped throughout Europe.
Around 40 countries worldwide have now imposed travel restrictions on the UK in a bid to stem the spread of the new variant. Some EU member states have yet to do so, while others have imposed short-term restrictions while they evaiuate the risk.
One person in Italy was confirmed on Sunday to be infected with the new strain, while several other cases are suspected.
“At Christmas there is a risk of a new surge,” Ricciardi warned, despite further restrictions announced across the country last week which effectively amount to lockdown over Christmas, New Year and Epiphany.
“The containment measures must last longer. At least a month, a month and a half”, Ricciardi said.
He added that it would now be “difficult” to reopen schools on January 7th as planned.
The Italian government has not given any indication that it is planning to impose any further restrictions.
Health minister Roberto Speranza said on Sunday that the flight ban is a “precautionary measure” advised by Italy's scientific experts while they try to “understand the extent of the problem”.
Patrick Vallance, scientific advisor to the British government, said on Monday that the new strain is spreading rapidly and is becoming the dominant strain of the virus in the south of England.
By December, he said, it was already responsible for more than 60 per cent of infections in London.
Ricciardi said the new strain “is not any more lethal, but circulates more than 70-80 percent faster”. However he said it does not seem to have affected “the protective capacity of the vaccine “.
Italian health experts agreed on Monday that Covid-19 vaccines currently being approved for use in Europe will still be effective against this and other new strains of the coronavirus.
“There had already been variants in the recent past and there may be others in the future,” Francesco Vaia, the health director at Rome's Spallanzani infectious diseases hospital, told the Ansa news agency.
“As things are, this does not mean the illness has become worse or more lethal. The vaccine has not been put into doubt.”