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Sajid Javid says Christmas will be ‘great’ despite Omicron strain

New Covid restrictions to fight Omicron variant

Boris Johnson has unveiled emergency measures to try to slow the spread of the Omicron variant – which is feared to be faster-spreading than Delta and more able to evade vaccines.

But extraordinarily despite his warnings about the peril there is so far no exact timings for when most of the changes take effect.

The PM announced: 

  • All arrivals to UK must take a PCR test, rather than a lateral flow, on day two from ‘next week’, and isolate at home until they get the result;
  • All contacts of someone found to be infected with the Omicron variant must self-isolate for 10 days;
  • Facemasks will be compulsory in shops and on public transport, again ‘from next week’;
  • Seven more countries in southern Africa have been put on the UK’s red list from 4am Sunday. Only British residents can come to the UK after visiting red list locations, and even then they must do a spell at a quarantine hotel. 

Sajid Javid today insisted it is ‘going to be a great Christmas’ and the UK is ‘nowhere near’ proper lockdown as he desperately tried to cool panic over the new Omicron Covid variant.

The Health Secretary said the government was taking ‘proportionate and balanced’ precautions to ‘buy time’, but stressed there is no certainty that the ‘super-mutant’ strain will be able to dodge vaccines, or to what extent that could happen.

Asked whether there could be a return of even tougher curbs such as social distancing, Mr Javid said there the government is ‘nowhere near’ that.

Urging people to keep planning for the festive season as they have been, Mr Javid told Sky News: ‘It’s going to be a great Christmas.’ 

The reassurance effort came after Boris Johnson imposed isolation for all UK arrivals and mandatory masks in shops and on trains in a bid to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible new variant.   

At a hastily-arranged Downing Street press conference last night the PM painted a grim picture of the potential threat from the new ‘super-mutant’ strain – admitting he cannot guarantee Christmas will go ahead as hoped.  

Mr Johnson put unlocking in reverse as he extended travel bans, enforcing day-two PCR tests for arrivals in Britain, and making facemasks compulsory in shops and on trains. Mr Javid said the mask rules should be in place from Tuesday.

All arrivals to the country must self-isolate until they get a negative result from a gold-standard test – which can identify those carrying Omicron. 

All contacts of people infected with the variant must stay at home for 10 days.       

Mr Javid said this morning he hopes extra measures will be ‘temporary’, adding he thinks people will ‘take this more seriously’.

Speaking to Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News, Sajid Javid said: ‘Doing it in this proportionate way where it’s for public transport, it’s for retail outlets, I think is the right level of response on masks.

‘It will be via Government regulation and that means, I think, that people will take it seriously.’

Pressed on whether people will following the rules on masks, Mr Javid said following the news of a new variant: ‘I do think people will take this more seriously.’

Mr Javid added: ‘It’s important, I think, to act in a proportionate way and also in a temporary way.

Sajid Javid said the government was taking 'proportionate and balanced' precautions to 'buy time', but stressed there is no certainty that the 'super-mutant' strain will be able to dodge jabs

Sajid Javid said the government was taking ‘proportionate and balanced’ precautions to ‘buy time’, but stressed there is no certainty that the ‘super-mutant’ strain will be able to dodge jabs

‘I hope this is something that we can remove within weeks. But I do think in terms of making progress, we want life to go back towards normal, but at this point in time, given what we know about this variant, and the expert advice that has been received, I think it is right to take some proportionate and balanced action.’

Mr Javid is expected to clarify the timeline on other rules taking effect over the next couple of days, with No10 suggesting they will be introduced ‘next week’.  

Two cases of the strain have been detected in Nottingham and Brentwood in Essex. Both are linked to travel to southern Africa, the suspected origin of the mutation.

The infected individuals and all members of their households have been told to self-isolate after the UK Health Security Agency confirmed the sequencing.

It marks the first time since last winter that restrictions have been tightened in England – although Scotland and Wales have previously responded to spiking infection rates.

The premier said the measures will be reviewed in three weeks, and in the meantime the booster jab campaign will be ramped up. 

The Welsh Government and the Scottish government are mirroring the restrictions on international travel, and warning they could go even further. 

The changes do not quite go as far as the formal ‘Plan B’ outlined by the government in the summer, as Mr Johnson stopped short of bringing back orders to work from home where possible and introducing vaccine passports. 

But the PM refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown when pressed by reporters, warning that Omicron ‘diverges quite significantly’ from other Covid variants and that it will ‘reduce the protections of our vaccines over time’. 

He was only willing to provide a lukewarm commitment that the festive season will be ‘better’ than last year’s.

Sir Patrick also warned that the UK may need to ‘face up’ to the possibility of further restrictions if the Omicron variant is very transmissible. 

And Prof Whitty said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will now need to decide whether to extend the booster vaccine down to adults age 18, and whether a second dose should be offered to children aged 12-15 who decided with their families to get the first dose of the vaccine.

Another 39,567 Covid cases were recorded in the UK today – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 posted last Saturday – while the number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid fell by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week to 131. 

The EU, US and Canada all followed Britain’s move to impose travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa ahead of the WHO adding the strain, also known as B.1.1.529, to its highest category for concerning variants. 

Britain’s first two Omicron infections came as a spate of cases were found across Europe, with at least 61 new cases of Covid entering the Netherlands from South Africa this morning. Authorities are currently sequencing the tests for the new variant.

Europe’s first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium yesterday – despite the unvaccinated woman who caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt. Germany and the Czech Republic both confirmed suspected cases today. 

Germany’s initial sequencing suggests a traveller from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Officials are awaiting full sequencing later today. Australian authorities – who also banned travel to nine countries in the region – fear the variant may have already entered the country. 

The US’ chief medical officer Dr Anthony Fauci said he would ‘not be surprised’ if the Omicron Covid variant was already in America. His comments came as President Joe Biden was slammed for still allowing flights from South Africa to land in the US before the start of a travel ban on Monday.  

Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference after cases of the new variant were confirmed in the United Kingdom

Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference after cases of the new variant were confirmed in the United Kingdom

The PM refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown when pressed by reporters, warning that Omicron 'diverges quite significantly' from other Covid variants and that it will 'reduce the protections of our vaccines over time'

The PM refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown when pressed by reporters, warning that Omicron ‘diverges quite significantly’ from other Covid variants and that it will ‘reduce the protections of our vaccines over time’

Boris Johnson was last night only willing to provide a lukewarm commitment that the festive season will be 'better' than last year's as he put Covid unlocking in reverse by announcing new restrictions

Boris Johnson was last night only willing to provide a lukewarm commitment that the festive season will be ‘better’ than last year’s as he put Covid unlocking in reverse by announcing new restrictions 

 

 

Between November 11 and November 26, there were 48 direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow. During this period, there were two British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic flight per day. If each plane carried 300 passengers, that could mean there have been 14,400 arrivals from South Africa since Omicron was first detected

Between November 11 and November 26, there were 48 direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow. During this period, there were two British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic flight per day. If each plane carried 300 passengers, that could mean there have been 14,400 arrivals from South Africa since Omicron was first detected

Another 39,567 Covid cases were recorded in the UK today – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 posted last Saturday – while the number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid fell by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week to 131

Another 39,567 Covid cases were recorded in the UK today – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 posted last Saturday – while the number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid fell by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week to 131

Graphs shown at a Downing Street press conference on Saturday showed the number of people who have been jabbed

Graphs shown at a Downing Street press conference on Saturday showed the number of people who have been jabbed

NOTTINGHAM: One case of Omicron has been found in Nottingham, where infections have been creeping up steadily in recent weeks in line with the national picture

NOTTINGHAM: One case of Omicron has been found in Nottingham, where infections have been creeping up steadily in recent weeks in line with the national picture

BRENTWOOD: The other case was found in Brentwood, Essex, which has seen a broadly similar trend, recording 67 new cases on Wednesday

BRENTWOOD: The other case was found in Brentwood, Essex, which has seen a broadly similar trend, recording 67 new cases on Wednesday

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far. Graph shows: The seven-day average  for cases in the country

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far. Graph shows: The seven-day average  for cases in the country

All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned by Mr Javid yesterday

All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned by Mr Javid yesterday

Facemasks MUST be worn in shops and public transport – but NOT pubs and restaurants: Boris announces rules will be ‘tightened’ in next few days 

The Prime Minister announced today that facemasks will be compulsory on public transport and in shops as part of his crackdown to fight the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

Within minutes of the mandate, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter that face coverings will be necessary on public transport and ‘in some other indoor settings’. He also reiterated Mr Johnson’s crackdown on travel.

The full detail of the ‘tightened’ rules will be announced in the next few days he said.

However he did not mention the hospitality trade which would be devastated by new rules in the run-up to the Christmas period.

Wary that many on the Conservative backbenches will be angered by the reimposition of restrictions, Mr Johnson said tonight: ‘I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position and we can lift these measures again, but right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximise our defences so that we protect the gains we’ve worked for so hard.’ 

Four more countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola – will be added to the red list from 4am on Sunday, meaning only British residents can come to this country, and they have to stay in a quarantine hotel. 

South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were put on the banned roster yesterday amid growing international panic about the ‘variant of concern’, which scientists fear is more transmissible and can dodge vaccines.  

The Prime Minister said: ‘We’re not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that, we’re not going to stop people travelling, but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.

‘Second, we need to slow down the spread of this variant here in the UK, because measures at the border can only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant rather than stop it all together. We will require all contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of Omicron to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of your vaccination status. We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport.’ 

Mr Johnson said border travel measures can ‘only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant rather than stop it all together’, so all contacts with a suspected case of the new variant will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

Boris Johnson says he is ‘absolutely confident’ that Christmas will be ‘considerably better’ than last year but refuses to rule out lockdowns after first cases of Omicron are detected in UK 

Boris Johnson has said he is ‘pretty to absolutely confident’ that this Christmas is ‘going to be better’ than last year’s during a Covid press conference on Saturday.

The prime minister’s comment came as he refused to rule out another lockdown over the festive period while fielding questions from journalists following the discovery of the new super-mutant Omicron variant in Britain.

The strain – designated a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation on Friday – has been detected in Nottingham and Brentwood in Essex, in two people who had recently returned from southern Africa.

There are fears the ‘monster’ variant could plunge the country into another lockdown over concerns it could dodge the vaccine and be more effective at re-infecting people.

Appearing inside Downing Street, Mr Johnson said: ‘We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout and I think I’m going to stick with the formula I’ve used before, which is I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas.’

He later backed up his comment, saying: ‘I think it will be considerably better than last year.’

Omicron Covid variant DOES spread rapidly and can be transmitted between fully-vaccinated people, says UK government amid fears it makes jabs 40% less effective 

The Omicron Covid-19 variant does spread rapidly and can be transmitted between full-vaccinated people, the UK government said at a press conference tonight.

It comes amid fears the new super-mutant strain makes jabs 40 per cent less effective after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the variant ‘might in part reduce the effectiveness of vaccines over time’.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said it is not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be as protection against it – but said those who are vaccinated or receive the booster jab will be less likely to become seriously ill.

He said it is ‘inevitable’ the Omicron variant will spread across the world over the next few days but added the majority of cases in the UK remain to be of the Delta variant.

He warned there is currently significant rates of transmission among young people but noted that rates among people aged over 60 and vulnerable groups are improving, meaning hospitalisations and deaths continue to decrease. 

 

He added the measures will be reviewed ‘in three weeks’, adding: ‘At that point we should have much greater information about the continuing effectiveness of our vaccines.’

The prime minister told a Downing Street press conference: ‘We need to bolster our protections against this new variant.

‘We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against Omicron but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection. 

‘If you’re boosted, your response is likely to be stronger so it’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible. 

‘From today we’re going to boost the booster campaign, we’re already planning to do six million jabs in England alone over the next three weeks and now we’re looking to go further. The Health Secretary has asked the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) to consider giving boosters to as wide a group as possible as well as reducing the gap between your second dose and your booster.’

The Prime Minister admitted the latest restrictions on travel ‘sound tough’, but added: ‘That’s the way it’s got to be.’

In response to a question about whether the Government could have moved faster to close borders to protect the country from the new Omicron variant, Mr Johnson said: ‘I really don’t know how we could’ve acted faster.

‘We got the news out about it on Thursday and we put quite a lot of southern African countries on the red list yesterday, and some more today.’

But the introduction of compulsory PCR tests for Covid-19 for everyone arriving in the UK has been described as a ‘huge blow’ for the travel industry. 

Abta, a trade association for tour operators and travel agents in the UK, said the added cost of testing for all arrivals to the UK will have an impact on customer demand for holidays, adding pressure to an industry which has been among the ‘hardest hit’ during the pandemic. 

‘While Abta understands that this is a rapidly evolving situation and public health must come first, the decision to require all arrivals to take a PCR test and self-isolate until a negative result is returned is a huge blow for travel businesses, many of whom were only just starting to get back on their feet after 20 months of severe restrictions,’ an Abta spokesman said.

‘These changes will add cost to people’s holidays, which will undoubtedly impact consumer demand and hold back the industry’s recovery, so it’s vital that this decision is kept under careful review and restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.

‘The Government must also now consider offering tailored support for travel businesses, which have been amongst the hardest hit during the pandemic.’

Which? travel editor Rory Boland said travellers will understand the need for restrictions, but the private testing industry which they will have to rely on ‘isn’t fit for purpose’.

‘Testing firms have struggled to provide tests on time over the past year, so it is hard to have confidence they will be able to cope with this spike in demand at short notice,’ he said.

‘Now that the Government has taken the decision to make PCR tests mandatory, it must take steps to properly regulate the marketplace and implement the CMA’s (Competition and Markets Authority) recommendations so that consumers can have confidence they are booking with a provider they can rely on.’

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has said the Government’s decision to impose tighter restrictions on face masks is ‘welcome’.

He tweeted: ‘Today’s announcement that face coverings will be compulsory on public transport nationwide, as they already are across TfL, is welcome. Evidence shows they help stop the virus spreading, and this is a measure I’ve repeatedly urged the Government to take.’

Following the announcement on face coverings, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham wrote on Twitter: ‘This is right but shows why they shouldn’t have been relaxed.

‘It will now be harder, and take longer, to get levels of compliance up to where we need them to be.’

Sir Patrick said vaccine makers are already looking at how they can make them more effective against emerging variants, and that a jab designed to specifically target the Omicron variant could be created in ‘about 100 days’.

He told the Downing Street press conference: ‘I think it’s important to recognise there are three ways in which this can be done and the companies are thinking about this. The first is the boosters will give high enough antibody coverage that actually that’s going to be enough to cover this. That’s the first situation and needs to be tested. But that looks like something that anyway is going to give protection, whether there’s more needed on top of that we’ll have to see.

‘The second is that vaccine manufacturers have been producing broader vaccines anyway to get broader coverage across potential new variants. So those are in the pipeline.

‘Then a couple of companies have already said they could tweak their existing vaccines and get a new vaccine out specifically against this in about 100 days.

‘Those are the sort of three scenarios, clearly the one which is the one to really go for now is boost, because it is the case that as you keep boosting the vaccine, you get slightly broader coverage because the immune system knows it needs to get broader.

‘Because the antibody levels are so high, it actually causes enough coverage of other variants to be effective.’

He added it is expected the variant will spread.

US chief medical officer Anthony Fauci says ‘he wouldn’t be surprised’ if Omicron COVID variant is already in America 

US chief medical officer Anthony Fauci has said ‘he wouldn’t be surprised if Omicron is already in America’.

Fauci told the Today Show on Saturday morning: ‘I would not be surprised if it is.

‘We have not detected it yet but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases…it almost invariably is ultimately going to go all over.’

‘You have to be careful and assume that that’s the case,’ he added, noting that Omicron could possibly ‘evade’ vaccinations. 

Fauci’s concerns about ‘transmissibility’ come as Biden has imposed a ban on travelers from from eight African countries – South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi – which won’t go into effect until Monday.

US citizens and green card holders from other regions of Africa will still be allowed to travel to the US.  

President Biden has been slammed for still allowing flights from South Africa to land in the US until Monday.

Sir Patrick added: ‘I think we’ll get more information on transmissibility, we’ll get more information on the ability of the vaccines to protect against the virus, but that’s going to take a little bit of time. At the moment, the models are more ‘if it spreads very fast, of course it’s going to spread very fast and go into a lot of places, and if it spreads less fast it’s going to do so less’.

‘But if it’s very transmissible and does cause big escape, then clearly that’s a major issue we have to face up to. But that isn’t what we know at the moment, we need to get that information.’

In an announcement this afternoon, Mr Javid said: ‘Today I can announce one thing that we are doing immediately is carrying out targeted testing and sequencing of positive cases in the two areas that are affected.

‘We know there’s this new variant out there. We don’t know enough about it yet but from what we do know, the protections that we have – especially the vaccines – are hugely important.

‘We will do whatever is necessary to protect the progress we have made as a country. 

‘We’ve come a long way since the summer and we keep all of this under review and if we need to take further action, we will.’ 

Mr Javid said anyone who has travelled in the last 10 days to the 10 countries now on the red list, they must self-isolate and take PCR tests.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said: ‘We will continue to work closely with the international community to quickly gather and analyse information on this variant to understand any possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.’ 

In a Twitter thread linked to the new Omicron variant, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said: ‘Wales is bringing in the same international travel measures as the rest of the UK.

‘The Cabinet will continue to meet this evening and tomorrow to monitor the developing situation and decide if further action is required to protect people’s health.’ 

Israel shuts its borders to ALL foreigners to kerb Omicron as anti-vaxxers protest lockdown in Netherlands and Germany, Italy and UK detect cases

Israel shut its borders to all foreigners and brought back phone-tracking late on Saturday in a bid to crack down on the Covid super-mutant Omicron. 

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Israelis entering the country, including those who are vaccinated, will be required to quarantine.

The ban will come into effect at midnight between Sunday and Monday. A travel ban on foreigners coming from most African states was imposed on Friday.  

Anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated in the Hague after the government introduced new Covid-19 restrictions under a ‘light’ lockdown.

Demonstration lit flares in protest at a ban on new years eve fireworks which the government said was to prevent excess hospitalisations and allow doctors to focus on treating virus patients. 

Germany, Italy and the UK became the latest states to detect cases of the highly transmissible and potentially vaccine resistant Omicron strain, which was discovered in South Africa this week. 

Meanwhile, Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia. 

The First Minister called the new Omicron variant a ‘serious development’, adding on Twitter: ‘This new variant is a serious development in the ongoing pandemic. I urge everyone in Wales to continue to work together to keep each other safe. Please get your vaccine or booster when offered, wear a mask when necessary, and book a test if you have symptoms.’

It comes as Mr Johnson prepares to implement fresh travel bans on a host of countries, after Britain halted flights to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe yesterday.

Experts warned Britain could face restrictions being reintroduced in the country this Christmas but the Prime Minister hopes travel bans could prevent the need for another lockdown.  

Nicky Kelvin Head of The Points Guy UK said: ‘The latest UK Government announcement is yet another blow of uncertainty to the travel industry to both business and leisure travellers leaving from or coming back to the UK. 

‘The key thing to remember here is whilst there are still some details to be confirmed, when it comes to the day two test, the test can be taken on arrival, day one or day two, it now needs to be a PCR test, reverting to what it used to be previously. 

‘It is possible to take a PCR test upon arrival and whilst travellers will need to quarantine until the results come through, you can minimise disruption to your life when coming back from a trip. 

‘It’s worth sourcing testing providers that are located in airports e.g. Express Test have on site testing at Heathrow- travellers are therefore able to land, have a test, and as a soon as they get their results back, will be clear of quarantine.

‘As this situation is continuing to develop, there could be further changes as countries across the world impose restrictions, not only on South Africa, but also on countries like the UK that currently have high rates of COVID infections.’

Prof Whitty previously said he fears Britons will not accept another national lockdown to fight off the variant over the winter because of ‘behavioural fatigue’ caused by two years of restrictions. 

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket in the country and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far.

And Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the Oxford scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, today expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the variant.  

The US has joined the growing list of countries to close their borders, with Joe Biden saying the pandemic will not end until global vaccinations are in place. New York governor Kathy Hochul yesterday declared a state of emergency as Covid transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020.

Officials in Germany today confirmed the first suspected case of Omicron in the country came from someone returning from South Africa.

‘The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,’ Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse, tweeted, referring to the strain first detected in southern Africa. 

Klose said that tests late Friday on the traveller who had returned to Germany from South Africa revealed ‘several mutations typical of Omicron’.

‘As there is this strong suspicion, the person has been isolated at home. The full sequencing is still to be completed.’

Klose’s ministry said that the person had arrived in Germany, the EU’s most populous country, at Frankfurt international airport, the country’s busiest.  

Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference after cases of the new Covid-19 variant were confirmed in the UK

Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference after cases of the new Covid-19 variant were confirmed in the UK

This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian 'Delta' variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks

This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks

Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport, the Netherlands, yesterday

Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport, the Netherlands, yesterday

A KLM Dutch Airliner from Johannesburg in South Africa sits at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam after passengers were taken off and quarantined as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant

A KLM Dutch Airliner from Johannesburg in South Africa sits at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam after passengers were taken off and quarantined as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant

Red Cross health workers transport passengers infected with coronavirus returning from South Africa for a quarantine in a hotel in Schiphol, the Netherlands, today

Red Cross health workers transport passengers infected with coronavirus returning from South Africa for a quarantine in a hotel in Schiphol, the Netherlands, today

What do we know about the Omicron variant? 

Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before. 

UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana. 

On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported. 

Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.  

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.

Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines. 

General Secretary of Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, Paddy Lillis said: ‘Retail staff working with the public every day are deeply worried about catching Covid-19 and the arrival of the Omicron variant is a further concern.

‘Wearing a face covering protects others, it should not be a personal preference but a personal responsibility. The Government must be clear and consistent on it being mandatory and that shop workers are not expected to enforce the law on face coverings.

‘Usdaw is urging the shopping public to wear face coverings, along with necessary hand sanitisation and maintaining social distancing, to help make shops safer and limit the spread of Covid-19.

‘We ask the public to follow the rules and respect shop workers, abuse is not a part of their job. We continue to call on retail employers to maintain appropriate safety measures, ensuring they are followed consistently in every store.

‘Many shop workers are at a greater risk of catching the virus and taking it home to their families. Yet they have worked throughout the pandemic to keep the country supplied with essentials. These key workers must be valued, respected and protected.’  

Meanwhile, Sir Andrew today moved to calm fears in Britain, claiming most of the strain’s mutations are in similar regions seen in other variants so far. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

‘At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.

‘It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.’ 

Prof Pollard said a new vaccine to combat Omicron could begin ‘very rapidly’ if required.

‘The processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well-oiled, so if it’s needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.’ 

South African experts yesterday also attempted to calm the wave of panic over the variant, describing it as a ‘storm in a tea cup’. 

Victory for MoS in ‘third dose’ chaos 

Vulnerable patients with compromised immune systems can finally book a vital third Covid vaccine through the NHS’s national booking system.

The Mail on Sunday has highlighted how up to 500,000 people with cancer, transplanted organs and other conditions have struggled to access the so-called ‘third primary dose’ due to local-level confusion over eligibility.

NHS bosses announced in early September that ‘severely immunocompromised’ individuals would be able to get a third shot after studies showed they often failed to generate antibodies after two doses.

But many GPs and even hospital consultants have been unaware of the programme or have confused it with the separate ‘booster’ campaign for older people. In a victory for the MoS, NHS England has now announced that people can book a third dose through the national Covid vaccination booking service, either online or by calling 119.

Meanwhile, British vaccine task force member Sir John Edmunds said travel bans will not keep the new variant away from British shores but could delay a potential surge in cases beyond the festive period to protect the NHS from further pressure.

Experts however have insisted there is ‘no plausible scenario’ in which Omicron will take the UK back to ‘square one’, and called for ‘calm heads’ despite the halting of flights from southern Africa. 

Mr Javid told MPs that, while there was ‘huge international concern’, vaccines had put Britain in a strong position.

Scientists said existing jabs could be tweaked to tackle the variant. And a World Health Organisation representative said that resorting to ‘Plan B’ measures so quickly, such as working from home or vaccine passports, would be an over-reaction.

But news of the variant saw the FTSE 100 – the UK’s leading share index – suffer its sharpest drop since January, closing down at 3.7 per cent, spelling alarm for travel companies banking on winter bookings.

A senior aviation source told the Times there were ‘serious jitters’ in all corners of the industry, adding: ‘There is now a massive question mark over Christmas. It is clear the red list will expand and that will have a massive knock on.’ 

Government sources said ministers ‘want to restrict travel to avoid restrictions at home at all costs’, even if it means risking a serious blow to the travel industry.

Originally known as the ‘Botswana’ variant, the strain was last night named ‘Omicron’ by the WHO and officially designated a ‘variant of concern’.

Its discovery earlier this week was so significant because it has around 30 mutations, including some linked to an increased risk of transmission. One expert described it as the ‘worst’ variant so far.

In a rush to limit the spread, the EU suspended all flights to southern Africa after the first case was confirmed in Europe. Britain had already put six nations on the travel ‘red list’ – and was poised to add two more last night.

A government adviser suggested that the public should be ‘ready for the possibility’ of a return to Covid restrictions. But a senior government source told the Mail: ‘People should not panic.’ 

Eight things we learned from the No 10 briefing on Omicron: 

Boris Johnson was joined by chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, for a Downing Street press conference on Saturday following the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the UK.

These are the eight main things we learned from the press briefing:

1. Face masks will be compulsory in shops and on public transport in England from next week.

2. Anyone entering the UK from any destination aboard will have to take a PCR test two days after arrival and self-isolate until they have a negative result.

3. Anyone who has been in close contact with a case of Omicron will have to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

4. The new measures will be reviewed within three weeks.

5. The two cases discovered in the UK were part of the same outbreak and are in Essex and Nottingham.

6. Omicron can be spread between people who are double vaccinated.

7. The variant has an ‘extensive’ mutation which means in may ‘at least in part’ reduce the protection of the vaccine over time, the PM said.

8. Omicron ‘really changes the risk/benefit calculations’ for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation regarding recommending vaccines to younger children, meaning children under 12 could soon be eligible.

Reporting by PA

Boris Johnson’s statement: In full 

Good afternoon.

The UK’s plan against Covid has been working.

We’ve had the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, and now the fastest booster campaign in Europe, with almost 16.8 million boosters in people’s arms, and though case numbers have remained relatively high, we’re seen falling hospitalisations and falling numbers of deaths.

But on Wednesday we received news of a new variant – the so-called Omicron Variant – I want to express my deep gratitude to scientists in South Africa who identified this new variant and shared this information widely and immediately.

This variant is spreading around the world, with 2 cases so far identified here in the UK.

As always, and I must stress this, as always with a new variant, there are many things that we just cannot know at this early stage.

But 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.

So we need to take targeted and proportionate measures now as a precaution while we find out more.

First, we need to slow down the seeding of this variant in our country.

We need to buy time for our scientists to understand exactly what we are dealing with.

And for us to get more people vaccinated and – above all – to get more people boosted.

As well as to help our NHS prepare in what is an already challenging winter.

So yesterday we took steps to protect the UK against the variant coming here from southern African countries – and earlier today added four more countries to the red list.

But we now need to go further and implement a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from across the whole world.

So we are not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that, we’re not going to stop people travelling, but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.

Second, we need to slow down the spread of this variant here in the UK.

Because measures at the border can only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant, rather than stop it altogether.

So in addition to the measures we are already taking to locate those who have been in countries of concern over the last ten days, we will require all contacts of those who test positive – with a suspected case of Omicron – to self-isolate for ten days, regardless of your vaccination status.

We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant, by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport.

And third – and most importantly – we need to bolster our protections against this new variant.

We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against Omicron, but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection.

And if you are boosted – your response is likely to be stronger.

So it’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs, and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible.

So from today we are going to boost the booster campaign.

We are already planning to do 6 million jabs in England alone over the next three weeks.

And now we are looking to go further, so the Health Secretary has asked the JCVI to consider giving boosters to as wide a group as possible, as well as reducing the gap between your second dose and your booster.

And, of course, we are speaking to our counterparts in the Devolved Administrations and will continue to coordinate with them.

The measures that we are taking today – including on our borders and face masks – are temporary and precautionary, and we will review them in three weeks.

At that point we should have much greater information about the continuing effectiveness of our vaccines.

I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position, and we can lift these measures again.

But right now this is the responsible course of action, to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant, and to maximise our defences so we protect the gains we have worked so hard for and so that we can continue to save lives.

Thank you.

How did 10% of passengers to Holland from South Africa arrive with Covid when they all had NEGATIVE tests? Alarm as suspected cases of Omicron are reported in Germany, Australia and Czech Republic alongside confirmed UK and Belgium cases

Alarms were today raised after one in ten passengers coming into the Netherlands from South Africa this morning tested positive for Covid and a wave of suspected cases of the new super-mutant variant were spotted in Europe.

Around 600 passengers arrived on two planes in Schipol Airport, near Amsterdam, from Johannesburg – the epicentre for the new strain that experts fear is 40 per cent more vaccine evasive than Delta – hours after travel bans were put in place.

Some 61 of those on the planes tested positive for the virus on PCR tests after they were stopped at the airport, despite having to provide proof of a negative lateral flow test taken within 24 hours before boarding the flight.

It raises the prospect that tests are not being performed correctly for travellers in South Africa, fraudulent tests are being provided or lateral flow tests may be less able to detect the Omicorn variant.

People returning to the Netherlands from outside the EU are required to take to show either a negative PCR tests taken 48 hours before their arrival or a negative lateral flow swab done 24 hours before coming back.

The test results have to include name and contact information of the institute, doctor or laboratory that conducted the test.

Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers’ tests. There are also suspected individual cases being sequenced in Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia

Europe’s first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium yesterday – despite the unvaccinated woman who caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt, not souther Africa where the strain emerged.

The UK confirmed it had sequenced two cases today – in Nottingham and Brentford, Essex – which were both linked to travel in southern Africa.

And Germany and the Czech Republic both confirmed suspected cases today. Germany’s initial sequencing suggests a traveler from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Officials are awaiting full sequencing later today.

And Australian authorities – who also banned travel to nine countries in the region – fear the variant may have already entered the country.

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket in the country and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far.

And Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the Oxford scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, today expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the variant. The strain makes vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective against transmission, according to the UK Health and Security Agency.

The US has joined the growing list of countries to close their borders, with President Joe Biden saying the pandemic will not end until global vaccinations are in place. New York governor Kathy Hochul yesterday declared a state of emergency as Covid transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020.

Omicron is ‘NOT a disaster’, says SAGE expert who accuses other scientists of ‘hugely overstating the situation’ because vaccines will protect against severe disease 

The new Covid variant is ‘not a disaster’ and some people may be ‘hugely overstating the situation’, according to a Sage adviser.

Last night the World Health Organisation branded the so-called ‘Omicron’ mutation a ‘variant of concern’ as countries including Britain and the US moved to shut their borders to six countries from southern Africa, the area of suspected origin.

The variant’s sudden appearance this week sparked panic in Whitehall circles, with Downing Street’s scientists warning that it could be vaccine-resistant and Health Secretary Sajid Javid threatening to reimpose lockdown if necessary.

In a rush to limit the spread, the EU suspended all flights to southern Africa after the first case was confirmed in Europe. Britain had already put six nations on the travel ‘red list’ – and was poised to add two more last night.

But microbiologist Professor Calum Semple today urged calm, insisting that vaccines are ‘still likely to protect you from severe disease’.

The Sage adviser told BBC Breakfast that he supported new travel restrictions on South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, but added: ‘This is not a disaster, and the headlines from some of my colleagues saying ‘this is horrendous’ I think are hugely overstating the situation.

‘Immunity from the vaccination is still likely to protect you from severe disease. 

‘You might get a snuffle or a headache or a filthy cold but your chance of coming into hospital or intensive care or sadly dying are greatly diminished by the vaccine and still will be going into the future.’

Professor Semple said that while it may not be possible to stop the variant coming to the UK, it is still important to delay its arrival.

‘If you can slow the virus coming into your country it gives you more time for your booster campaign to get ahead of it,’ he went on. ‘It also gives the scientists longer to understand more about the virus in case there is anything we really should be worrying about.’

Asked what other measures he thought were advisable, Prof Semple said he was in favour of compulsory facemasks in shops and on public transport, and handwashing.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said ‘it is extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen’. Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, he also insisted that vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the Omicron variant. 

‘That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants, the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta,’ he told the programme.

‘At least from a speculative point of view, we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed. It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.’

This week, Mr Javid told MPs in the Commons that the Government ‘won’t hesitate to act’ if further restrictions are necessary.

‘One of the lessons of this pandemic has been that we must move quickly, and at the earliest possible moment,’ the Health Secretary said. ‘We’re heading into winter and our booster programme is still ongoing, so we must act with caution.’

Pressed on whether the Government could implement its Plan B for winter, Mr Javid said the current rules ‘remain the policies that I think we need at this time’.

Revealed: Up to FIFTY direct flights from South Africa arrived in UK after Omicron was first detected- as Dutch find 10% of arrivals from Johannesburg have Covid

Nearly 50 direct flights from South Africa have arrived in the UK since the new Covid variant was first detected, MailOnline can reveal.

The ‘monster’ Omicron strain was first detected by health officials in Botswana on November 11 before spreading across the region and then leapfrogging to Europe and the Far East.

All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned by Health Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday amid growing international panic about the strain, which scientists believe is more transmissible and has an increased risk of reinfection.

But between November 11 and November 26, there were 48 direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow.

During this period, there were two British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic flight per day, an analysis by MailOnline has found. If each plane carried 300 passengers, that could mean there have been 14,400 arrivals from South Africa since Omicron was first detected.

Between November 11 and November 26, there were 48 direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow. During this period, there were two British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic flight per day. If each plane carried 300 passengers, that could mean there have been 14,400 arrivals from South Africa since Omicron was first detected

Between November 11 and November 26, there were 48 direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow. During this period, there were two British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic flight per day. If each plane carried 300 passengers, that could mean there have been 14,400 arrivals from South Africa since Omicron was first detected

Was new Covid variant named Omicron to avoid angering Beijing? WHO chose to skip TWO letters of Greek alphabet to avoid ‘Xi’ which has written similarity to Chinese president Xi Jinping

The relationship between China and the World Health Organisation has come under renewed scrutiny after the UN body appeared to skip over the Greek letter ‘Xi’ and call the new Covid variant ‘Omicron’ instead.

Last night the WHO sparked criticism from China hawks after it named the mutation ‘Omicron’ instead of ‘Nu’ or ‘Xi’.

The UN body has been using Greek letters such as ‘Alpha’, ‘Beta’ and ‘Delta’ to describe the variants, saying on its website it would ‘be easier and more practical to be discussed by non-scientific audiences’.

However, its decision to name the variant from southern Africa ‘Omicron’ has sparked speculation that the WHO deliberately skipped over ‘Xi’ to avoid angering the President of China, Xi Jinping.

President Xi is alleged to have significant influence over WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian minister whose country has been a major recipient of Chinese investment

President Xi is alleged to have significant influence over WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian minister whose country has been a major recipient of Chinese investment

President Xi is alleged to have significant influence over WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian minister whose country has been a major recipient of Chinese investment.

Tedros has been accused of using his role to make further appointments that were preferable to Beijing, including making Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador.

The Chinese government has been accused of using an ‘aggressive’ influence campaign on the WHO’s response to the initial Covid outbreak which led to it missing its chance to stop the pandemic. It is also alleged that the UN body’s independence was eroded prior to the global spread of the virus in early 2020.

Donald Trump Jr wrote on Twitter: ‘As far as I’m concerned the original will always be the Xi variant.’

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