Boris Johnson announces half-measures for highly concerning Omicron variant

A close up of Boris Johnson
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Boris Johnson has ordered the return of mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport after the concerning variant was detected in Britain.

According to the PA news agency, the prime minister is preparing to reimpose measures to control the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19). There are fears that the new strain has a higher risk of reinfection and could evade existing vaccines. However, Johnson announced no mitigations for schools and workplaces. Nor has he issued any guidance for hospitality, entertainment and cultural venues. Meanwhile, contacts of Omicron cases will be required to self-isolate for 10 days, even if they are vaccinated.

All international arrivals will have to take a PCR test and “self-isolate until they have a negative result”. But government guidelines only require them to take a test by the end of their second day in the UK. So positive cases could still expose others upon arrival to the UK before they take their test.

A price heavier than loss of life?

Johnson announced the strengthening of England’s rules at a Downing Street press conference. It came after two cases of Omicron were identified in Nottingham and Brentwood, Essex. Both were linked to travel to southern Africa.

On Saturday 27 November, the UK Health Security Agency confirmed the two Omicron cases in England after genomic sequencing overnight. The individuals and their households were ordered into self-isolation. And targeted testing is being carried out in areas where they are thought to have been infectious.

The prime minister said the strain, designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, appears to spread “very rapidly”. Moreover, it can transmit between the double-vaccinated and may partially reduce the protection of existing vaccines.

But although the new safety measures are minimal, the prime minister described them as “temporary and precautionary”. He added that the measures will be reviewed in three weeks.

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On Sunday 28 November, health secretary Sajid Javid said that the UK is “nowhere near” introducing stricter safety measures, including social distancing. He told Sky News that introducing further restrictions “comes with a very heavy price”. That’s despite the potential price of reduced restrictions being even more needless deaths and unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

A “major issue”

England’s chief medical officer, professor Chris Whitty, said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will be tasked with looking at whether boosters can be extended from the over-40s to the over-18s.

They’ll also consider whether second doses should be offered to 12 to 15-year-olds, and whether the waiting time before a booster jab could be reduced.

Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said the country needs to “face up” to the possibility the variant will be a “major issue” if it turns out to be highly-transmissible and evades immunity.

He said that the existing booster programme is the current priority. But vaccine manufacturers believe they can tweak their existing jabs to better counter Omicron “in about 100 days”.

Selective travel restrictions

Ministers said Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola will face travel restrictions from 28 November. They will join South Africa and five other neighbouring nations on UK red lists. Although no restrictions have been announced for Belgium, Germany, Italy and Czech Republic, where Omicron cases have also been detected.

The UK, Germany and Italy all confirmed the presence of Omicron on 27 November. It came after the variant first detected in South Africa was reported to be in Belgium on 26 November.

But the prime minister said border measures can “only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant rather than stop it all together”. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said they intend to mirror the border restrictions.

Johnson said he’s “confident” this Christmas “will be considerably better than the last”. But he refused to say whether further restrictions, including social distancing and work-from-home guidance, would follow.

Wary that many on the Conservative backbenches will be angered by the move, Johnson said:

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.

MPs are expected to be given a vote to approve the measures after they come into force, during which a number of backbench Tories may stage a rebellion. But it is thought unlikely Labour would oppose the restrictions, virtually guaranteeing that they will pass.

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