The mutant virus is thought to be already in the UK, in addition to a “Kent variant” that is thought to have increased transmissibility by up to 70 per cent and which is responsible for many of the most recent hospitalisations.
Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant.
“That’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa, and movement from South Africa, and to insist that anybody who’s been to South Africa self isolates. This is a very, very significant problem.”
Professor Sir John Bell, of Oxford University, yesterday said that the South African variant was already in the UK and there was “a big question mark” about whether the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines would work on it.
However, he stressed that it could take just six weeks to develop a new jab if one was needed.
“It might take a month, or six weeks, to get a new vaccine, so everybody should stay calm. It’s going to be fine,” he said. “But we’re now in a game of cat and mouse, because these are not the only two variants we’re going to see. We’re going to see lots of variants.”
Both the UK and South African variants have changes in the “spike” protein that suggest they are more infectious.