Boris Johnson tightens rules on travel and mask-wearing over Omicron concerns

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Boris Johnson has announced fresh measures to curb the spread of coronavirus including mandatory masks in shops and PCR tests for travellers entering England after two cases of the Omicron variant were detected in the country.

Amid mounting global concern over Omicron, named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday, the prime minister set out a series of steps the UK is taking to maximise its defence against Covid-19.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Johnson said anyone arriving in England will be asked to take a PCR test for Covid-19 on the second day and must self-isolate until they provide a negative test. The rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport in England will also be tightened, he said.

Contacts of all confirmed cases of people infected with the Omicron variant in England will have to self-isolate for 10 days. Health officials are also examining the case for widening access to the booster vaccine programme, he added.

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The measures will be reviewed in three weeks.

The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales confirmed on Saturday evening they will apply the same measures on international travel as announced by Johnson.

A spokesperson for the Welsh government said: “We have repeatedly raised our concerns with the UK government about its decision to relax international travel rules quickly, precisely because of the risk of introducing new variants into the UK. We also warned against the removal of PCR tests for returning travellers.

Omicron is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more severe illness. Johnson warned it could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, as he announced a strengthening of England’s rules after two cases were identified in Nottingham and Brentwood in Essex.

In an effort to slow the spread, Johnson announced “temporary and precautionary” measures to be reviewed in three weeks, alongside an expansion of the vaccine booster campaign.

Johnson said he remained confident that this Christmas “will be considerably better than last Christmas”.

Asked about the prospect for this year’s festivities, the prime minister 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.”

The measures announced fall short of the government’s plan B, which involves advice to work from home and the use of vaccine passports.

However, the UK may need to “face up” to the possibility of further action if the Omicron variant is very transmissible, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said.

He said: “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 a 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.”

Prof Chris Whitty told the press conference it was “inevitable” the Omicron variant will spread across the world over the next few days.

England’s chief medical officer said that while it is clear Omicron is highly transmissible, it is not yet known 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.

Earlier on Saturday Sajid Javid, the health secretary, announced that the UK was adding four more southern African nations to the travel red list after two cases of the new variant were detected in Nottingham and Brentwood, Essex.

The UK Health Security Agency confirmed the cases, which are believed to be connected and linked to travel from southern Africa, after genomic sequencing overnight.

The individuals and their households were ordered into self-isolation and targeted testing was being carried out in areas where they are thought to have been infectious.

Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola will face travel restrictions from Sunday.

Javid said “this is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over” as he urged people to get their vaccines, including boosters. “We were concerned from the moment we first identified this new variant,” he added.

He said anyone who has travelled in the last 10 days to the countries now on the red list, which also includes South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia, must self-isolate and take PCR tests.

The UK is the second European nation to have reported the presence of Omicron after Belgium said it had identified a single case on Friday.

In the Netherlands authorities said 61 people tested positive for Covid-19 arriving on two flights from South Africa on Friday. Further tests are under way to determine if any of them had the Omicron variant.

It was unclear when the two individuals in the UK were infected, or their full travel history, as countries scrambled to close their borders to much of southern Africa.

Ministers said non-UK and non-Irish residents who have been in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England from 4am on Sunday.

Those who are permitted to return will be ordered to isolate in a government-approved facility for 10 days.

Numerous pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron after the WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains.

Related: The Guardian view on the Omicron variant: caution needed | Editorial

Commenting on two cases of the Omicron Covid variant being detected in the UK, Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine, Imperial College London, said: “There is no need to get alarmed, but we do need to be prepared and to take rapid action.

“It is better to act fast but be prepared to change as new information comes in. Travel restrictions may slow the rate of growth and buy time to establish the important facts about severity, immune evasion, transmission and susceptibility to treatment and prevention.”

Openshaw added: “With or without this new variant, Delta is already a crisis in many parts of Europe and still causing a lot of illness and death in the UK, especially in those not vaccinated or in those who do not respond to vaccines.”