2 cases of Omicron variant detected, UK tightens curbs

2 cases of Omicron Covid variant detected, UK tightens curbs

Anyone who enters the UK must take a PCR test by the end of the second day after arrival

Representative Image. Credit: Pixabay Photo

Two people in the UK have been found to be infected with the new Covid variant, Omicron, the UK government announced on Saturday and tightened measures with compulsory PCR tests for all international travellers entering the country and mandatory face masks in crowded places.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that both cases of the variant were linked with travel to South Africa and are being monitored. He also noted that from the data available so far the new variant does appear to spread faster and may in part reduce vaccine protection.

“As always, there are many things we cannot know at this early stage. It does appear that Omicron spreads very rapidly and can spread between people who are double vaccinated,” Johnson told reporters.

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"It might at least in part reduce the protection of our vaccine over time. We need to take targeted and proportionate measures now as a precaution while find out more. We need to slow down the seeding of this variant in our country,” he said.

As part of these targeted measures, he announced that anyone who enters the UK must take a PCR test by the end of the second day after arrival and self isolate until they have a negative result. This would replace the current, cheaper Lateral Flow Test requirement, which had come in force recently.

Besides, all contacts of those who test positive with a suspected Omicron case will be required to self isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status.

Additionally, rules around face masks, thus far mostly voluntary, are being tightened up in shops and on public transport and there will be a fresh push for people to get their booster vaccine doses, with health authorities asked to review the six-month gap between a second and third top-up dose to see if it can be shortened.

“When you look at Delta, the measures we have in place are effective. You are seeing downwards tracking of hospitalisations and death, assisted by the booster programme and massive take-up of vaccines,” Johnson noted.

"But for Omicron, we need to slow the seeding with the border measures we're taking, tough measures at the border, to give us time to find out exactly what the risk is, but give us time to have another 6 million boosters in people's arms,” he said.

The new measures will be kept under review and revisited in three weeks’ time.

Earlier on Saturday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) had detected cases of the new Omicron Covid variant in Chelmsford, Essex, in south-east England and in Nottingham, central England. The cases are said to be linked and the two people were self-isolating alongside their households while more tests and contact tracing take place.

Also, the government said four more countries -- Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia -- are being added to the travel ban “red list” from 4 am on Sunday. This adds to the six countries on the ban list since Friday — South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

“We've always been very clear that we won't hesitate to take further action if that is what is required,” 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.

“This is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over. If there is one thing that everyone can be doing, right now, is if they are eligible, please take your vaccine, whether it's your first shot, second shot, or your booster jab,” he said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday declared Omicron "a variant of concern", putting it in the same category as the Delta variant that has caused waves of infection to sweep across the globe and forcing several European countries to re-enter lockdown.

The new variant is considered potentially more dangerous because it has around twice as many mutations as Delta, but experts say how much of a concern is still under investigation. Omicron, also called B.1.1.529, has also been detected in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, and possibly in Germany and the Czech Republic.

UK officials insist that the reason two cases had been detected in Britain now was as much because the UK is a “world leader” in genomic sequencing.

Governments around the world have suspended flights to and from countries in southern Africa as a result of the detection of the Omicron variant.

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