It’s reported by PA that two cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the UK. The new coronavirus (Covid-19) variant that originated in South Africa has also been identified in Belgium.
Travel restrictions have been imposed by the UK government on six countries including South Africa. But despite concerns that the new variant may have greater transmissibility, UK health secretary Sajid Javid has not yet re-imposed more extensive coronavirus safety measures country-wide.
Omicron in UK
According to PA, one case of the new variant was reportedly found in Nottingham and another in Chelmsford. The UK Health Security Agency has confirmed both cases after genomic sequencing.
UK health secretary Sajid Javid has ordered targeted testing in both towns. But he neglected to mention anything about introducing further safety measures and restrictions:
We have been made aware by @UKHSA of two UK cases of the Omicron variant. The two cases are linked and there is a connection with travel to southern Africa.
These individuals are self-isolating with their households while further testing and contact tracing is underway.
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— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) November 27, 2021
The first known confirmed infection of the new variant was taken from a specimen on 9 November. The new variant was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 24 November. WHO subsequently declared it a variant of concern (VOC) and named it Omicron.
Sharon Peacock, who is a specialist in genetic sequencing at the University of Cambridge, said that the new variant appears to have mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility”.
WHO declared that the variant “has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage”. It added:
Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs
Another person known to have contracted the variant returned to Belgium from Egypt on 11 November:
In Belgium, one sample was confirmed as the novel B.1.1.529 variant (in a returning traveller from Egypt (11/11); first symptoms on 22/11).
— Marc Van Ranst (@vanranstmarc) November 26, 2021
Instances of the new variant have also been found amongst travellers in Hong Kong, Botswana, and Israel.
While the data on the new variant is still at the preliminary stage, it’s better to be safe than sorry (and take preventative action now):
Five quick tweets on the new variant B.1.1.529
Caveat first: data here is *very* preliminary, so everything could change. Nonetheless, better safe than sorry.
1) Based on the data we have, this variant is out-competing others *far* faster than Beta and even Delta did 🚩🚩 pic.twitter.com/R2Ac4e4N6s
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) November 25, 2021
Regarding travel restrictions, it appears the UK government could have acted much quicker, as this tweet indicates:
A friend arrived in London this morning on one of the last flights from South Africa.
Health officials met the plane, but no additional precautions are being taken for the hundreds of passengers.
The flight came from Gauteng – the province where the new variant was identified.
— Adam Schwarz (@AdamJSchwarz) November 26, 2021
It’s reported that the EU has also imposed restrictions on flights to and from southern Africa.
Not just about vaccinations
Dr Duncan Robertson is one of the scientists involved in coronavirus modelling and analysis. He succinctly explains why limiting coronavirus cases is about more than just vaccination:
None of this variant stuff changes what we can do on a personal level:
– get vaccinated
– get boosted
– use lateral flow tests
– isolate if positive
– use masks preferably FFP2/3.
And encourage others to do the same.
— Dr Duncan Robertson (@Dr_D_Robertson) November 26, 2021
Indeed, we need both vaccinations and mitigations in order to protect people effectively:
WHO argues vaccines are crucial, but relying on vaccines alone promotes 'a false sense of security'.
We need more protective measures.
UK Government continues to rely on vaccines alone, and acts in ways that undermine other protections.
And week after week, 1,000 more people die. pic.twitter.com/92JOGxxyGf
— Stephen Reicher (@ReicherStephen) November 25, 2021
And WHO has reminded individuals to reduce further risk by:
wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.
Professor Christina Pagel of Independent SAGE tweeted how coronavirus cases amongst the young in England are significantly rising, particularly for 5-9 year olds:
In England cases continuing to fall in 60+ (boosters!) but going up in all other age groups.
Particularly children, particularly 5-9 where confirmed cases are higher than they've *ever been*. Parents' generations fastest increasing adults.
0-4 yr olds also higher than ever. pic.twitter.com/MPdjDPMiRD
— Prof. Christina Pagel (@chrischirp) November 24, 2021
These stats also show that, in contrast, coronavirus cases for those age over 60 are decreasing. A coronavirus tracker shows that Scotland and Wales are 72% and 71% fully vaccinated, while England and the north of Ireland are 68% and 66%. The UK as a whole is 69% which is behind 33 other countries (Portugal, for example, is 89% fully vaccinated).
Indie SAGE’s latest report includes a slide showing that the number of “rolling deaths per week per million people” is far higher in the UK compared to similar sized countries in Europe.
In October, a report from the Health and Social Care committee and Science and Technology committee warned the government that it had erred at every stage of the pandemic. With the new variant in our midst, the UK government now needs to be ultra vigilant and act swiftly.
Yes, more vaccinations are needed. But scientific advice is clear that additional restrictions can make all the difference in controlling the spread of the virus. This particularly applies to crowded indoor places such as public transport, shops, offices, and schools. The government must heed this advice.
We need to hold the government to account so that it doesn’t risk yet more lives to the new variant. But meanwhile, we all have a role to play in ensuring that we protect ourselves and the wider population.
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