Boris Johnson has announced measures designed to contain the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, as the UK’s chief medical officer warned there was a reasonable chance of “vaccine escape”.
Anyone entering the UK will be required to take a PCR test within two days of their arrival and must self isolate until they receive a negative result, after the UK reported its first cases of the new variant.
Any contact of a suspected case of Omicron must isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status. Face masks will be made mandatory in shops and on public transport, but not in pubs and restaurants. All measures will be reviewed in three weeks.
Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, Professor Chris Whitty said there was “a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant”, the first admission of this kind from a UK health official. This means the variant may be able to evade vaccine protection, but Whitty insisted that it was likely vaccines would still help prevent severe illness and death.
The UK prime minister said: “Our scientists are learning more hour by hour, and it does appear that Omicron spreads very rapidly, and can be spread between people who are double vaccinated.
“There is also a very extensive mutation which means it diverges quite significantly from previous configurations of the virus, and as result, it might — at least in part — reduce the protection of our vaccines over time.”
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has been asked to review whether booster vaccines should be extended to under-40s and whether the gap between second and third doses should be reduced from six months.
While scientists continue to assess the new variant, the government has not yet deployed its Covid-19 Plan B, which includes work from home guidance and Covid-19 passports for mass events.
When asked if the government should have activated its full suite of measures under Plan B, one Sage adviser told the FT: “If what we think we know now [about Omicron] turns out to be approximately true, and let’s hope it doesn’t, then Plan B won’t be anywhere near stringent enough to stop this.”
Johnson told reporters he was “confident” that this Christmas “will be considerably better than last Christmas”.
The new measures were introduced as the variant continued to spread in Europe and scientists raced to assess the new level of risk.
The UK health department said one case had been identified in Chelmsford and a second in Nottingham. They were linked and connected to travel to southern Africa, officials said.
Earlier on Saturday, the World Health Organization urged a restrained approach to the variant to ensure that countries reporting cases were not penalised.
On Friday the WHO designated Omicron a “variant of concern,” skipping the intermediate “of interest” designation.
Sajid Javid, UK secretary of state for health and social care, said there would be a surge in testing capacity in affected areas and new travel restrictions, which from Sunday will apply to a further four African countries.
“We will not hesitate to take further action if required,” Javid said.
Results of tests to gauge Omicron’s response to vaccines and immune systems are not expected for two to three weeks, scientists and officials said.
Global travel has increasingly been limited since Thursday, with the US, the EU, Switzerland and the UK imposing restrictions on journeys to southern Africa and several other countries where the variant has been detected.
South African scientists are sending samples of the virus to biosecurity agencies worldwide, including the UK’s Health Security Agency and the government’s Porton Down lab.
Meanwhile, there was further evidence that the new variant is seeding in Europe as the first cases were identified in Germany and the Czech Republic, a day after a case was identified in Belgium.
Authorities in the Netherlands were investigating whether 61 people who tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving on two flights from South Africa on Friday had contracted the Omicron variant.
They have been placed in seven-day hotel isolation, according to Dutch health authorities. “The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant,” the Dutch health authority said.
Dr Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, warned the Omicron variant could already be in the US, even though there were no confirmed cases in the country so far. He told the broadcaster NBC earlier on Saturday that the new variant was concerning because it “has a large number of mutations” that potentially makes the virus more contagious and more transmissible.
Omicron appears to be behind a significant surge in cases in South Africa. Its heightened transmissibility has not yet been confirmed, though the WHO has said it appears to have a growth advantage.
Some of its mutations have been previously associated with immune escape. Any variant significantly more transmissible than Delta, already more contagious than the ancestral coronavirus, or able to pierce vaccine protection could seriously hamper the global recovery from the pandemic.
Additional reporting by Oliver Barnes and Mehreen Khan