5 things we learned about COVID and the Omicron variant today

Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Jonathan Van Tam during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Monday November 29, 2021.
Jonathan Van Tam during a media briefing on Monday. (PA)

The Omicron variant has sparked global concern as cases begin to be recorded across the world.

In the UK, millions more people will become eligible for a third jab with all people aged 18 and over set to be offered a booster vaccine.

At a press conference today England's deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam told people "not to panic".

“I’m not asking them either to completely ignore the weather forecast," he said. "We look at South Africa, it’s our kind of weather forecast here. You can’t ignore what you see around the world and it is more urgent than ever before, because of what’s happened.”

So what have we learned?

1. Booster program accelerated

Watch: Sajid Javid receives Covid booster jab

The UK government has rapidly extended their booster programme in light of the emerging variant. The vaccine used will be either Pfizer or Moderna.

All those between 18-39 years old will now qualify for booster doses no sooner than 12 weeks after their third jab. Those aged 40 and over are already eligible for a booster vaccine.

People who are severely immunocompromised will be offered another booster dose - a fourth - no sooner than 12 weeks after their third dose.

Children aged 12-15 should be offered a second dose of vaccine at standard dose 12 weeks after their first dose. The same schedule applies 16 year olds and over.

Read more here

2. Omicron cases across the UK

People pass through a Covid-19 testing centre at Bradford University in West Yorkshire, one of the areas where new measures have been implemented to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Stricter rules have been introduced for people in Greater Manchester, parts of East Lancashire, and West Yorkshire, banning members of different households from meeting each other indoors.
People pass through a Covid-19 testing centre at Bradford University.

Eleven cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the UK so far - five in England, six in Scotland.

Several cases have not been directly linked to international travel to affected countries meaning the Omicron variant is now circulating in the community.

In Scotland, the cases have been detected in two in Greater Glasgow and Clyde and four cases in Lanarkshire.

Three other cases have been detected in England, with two cases in Wandsworth and Camden detected on Monday.

Health secretary Sajid Javid told MPs in the House of Commons on Monday that he expects more cases of the virus to emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Read more here

3. Scotland introduces new rules

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks to the media after her visit to St Margaret's House, Edinburgh, where she met EU Citizens who have applied and are applying for the EU Settlement Scheme with help from charities Feniks and Citizens' Rights Project. Picture date: Wednesday June 23, 2021.
Nicola Sturgeon has moved to tighten rules. (PA)

Scots have been told they should take coronavirus tests each time they go out to meet people from other households during the festive period, after the first cases of Omicron in the UK were discovered in Scotland.

SNP Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon urged Scots to be on alert over the new strain.

"At this stage we are asking people to significantly step up and increase compliance with all existing precautions," she said. "Face coverings; hygiene like washing hands and surfaces; vaccination; and of course testing yourself with LFDs and testing before you mix with people from other households."

A payment aimed at helping low-income families in Scotland will also be doubled to £20 a week from next year.

Scotland currently has the highest number of Omicron cases in the UK.

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4. More masks in schools

CARDIFF, WALES - SEPTEMBER 20: A child wearing a face mask looks on at Llanishen High School on September 20, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales. All children aged 12 to 15 across the UK will be offered a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Parental consent will be sought for the schools-based vaccination programme. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Masks are back in school settings. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Schools in England have been sent guidance that secondary pupils and teachers should wear masks in communal areas from Monday.

However, they were told by the Education Secretary that closing schools would be the last possible option.

Nadhim Zahawi also said he does not support the return of “bubbles” in schools – where whole classes or year groups could be sent home after a positive COVID test – as it reduces attendance “significantly”.

Despite the new advice on face coverings, teaching unions are calling for tougher measures to be implemented to stop the spread of coronavirus.

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5. Call for volunteers to help

Volunteers are being urged to help the “vital national effort” of expanding the coronavirus vaccination programme as the head of NHS England warned that the service “will not be able to do it alone”.

Chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the Omicron variant serves as a “wake-up call”.

Many people donated their time when the vaccination programme first began as the nation was facing lockdown and the emergence of the Alpha variant of COVID.

Now volunteers are being urged to come forward again as the NHS prepares for an expansion of the programme.

Ms Pritchard said that NHS staff will “move heaven and earth to vaccinate as many people as possible” to ensure that people can enjoy Christmas with their loved ones.

Read more here

Watch: Booster programme 'has never been more vital', says Van-Tam