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Omicron: England ‘nowhere near’ introducing tougher Covid restrictions, Sajid Javid says

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England is “nowhere near” introducing tougher Covid restrictions, Sajid Javid says, despite the return of mask-wearing and PCR tests for travellers.

The health secretary rejected stricter curbs – such as social distancing, or a working from home rule – arguing they “carry a very heavy price” and are not necessary now, despite the arrival of the Omicron variant.

Mr Javid also said people should “continue with their plans as normal for Christmas”, although warning it would be “irresponsible to make guarantees”.

Asked about moving to harsher restrictions, including social distancing, Mr Javid told Sky News: “We are not there yet – we are nowhere near that.”

He pointed out the measures announced by Boris Johnson on Saturday night, within hours of the first two Omicron cases being detected in the UK, would be reviewed after 3 weeks.

“I hope this is something we can remove within weeks. In terms of making progress, we want life to go back towards normal,” the health secretary said.

Mr Javid revealed that Tuesday is whne mask-wearing will be compulsory again in shops and on public transport in England – a rule never dropped in the rest of the UK.

Day 2 PCR tests for all arrivals will be re-introduced from 4am that day, following discussions with the devolved governments.

The health secretary rejected a warning that people will disobey the mask rule, arguing that – because it will now be a “government regulation” – “people will take it seriously”.

He also dismissed fears that fears of cancelling Christmas will recur every winter, because widespread vaccination has changed the picture, while saying: “We will have to learn to live with Covid. We will never defeat it.”

As part of a “temporary and precautionary” package announced late on Saturday, the prime minister also announced that the contacts of Omicron cases must isolate for 10 days.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has been asked to urgently consider expanding booster jabs to under-40s and cutting the six-month gap after a second jab.

One member of the Sage advisory group, psychologist Susan Michie, was quick to criticise the moves, saying: “This is plan B lite and we should have had plan B plus.”

The two detected Omicron cases, in Essex and Nottingham, are “linked” and have been traced to travel to southern Africa. Targeted sequence testing in those areas is underway.

And four more countries – Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia – have been added to the travel ‘red list’, requiring arrivals to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

Early evidence suggest Omicron may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, the current dominant strain, and that current vaccines may be less effective against it.

However, some scientists have downplayed the dangers. The microbiologist Professor Calum Semple, who also sits on Sage, said some horror headlines were “hugely overstating the situation”.

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