Omicron: Mask-wearing back for shops and transport and PCR tests for all arrivals, PM announces

·3-min read

People will be ordered to wear masks in shops and on public transport in England again in response to the arrival of the Omicron variant.

Boris Johnson also announced that contacts of Omicron cases must isolate for 10 days – and the return of day 2 PCR tests for all international arrivals, who must isolate until they receive a negative result.

Calling the measures “temporary and precautionary”, until the danger from the variant’s mutations are known, he told a press conference: “We will review them in 3 weeks.”

Asked why he was not imposing the government’s full ‘plan B’ – also including vaccine passports and working from home – Mr Johnson insisted the UK is still in a “much, much stronger position” than earlier in the pandemic.

Omicron could be tackled by efforts to “slow the seeding with the tough measures we are taking at the border” – while more booster jabs are delivered, to beef up protection.

But he did not rule out further festive restrictions, saying only: “I’m absolutely confident that this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas. That will do for the time being.”

Speaking after the first two Omicron cases were found – in Essex and Nottingham – Mr Johnson also revealed moves to expand booster jabs to under-40s and cut the six-month gap between a second jab and a booster.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has been asked to consider the changes – in a clear sign that ministers want them to happen – although the prime minister called it “an independent body”.

“Clearly we hope we will get some answers for everybody as soon as possible,” he told the press conference in Downing Street.

Mask-wearing is already compulsory in shop and on public transport in the rest of the UK, which is expected to follow England in imposing the PCR test crackdown for travellers.

Mr Johnson also rejected criticism that the spread of the new variant in southern Africa showed the folly of rich nations failing to deliver vaccines to poorer nations.

He claimed the problem in such countries has “not been supply, but hesitancy and lack of take-up”, arguing the UK has been “leading” the world in sharing jabs.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, warned of “a reasonable chance of some type of vaccine escape” from the Omicron variant, but said jabs should still offer protection against serious disease.

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.”

And Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, tweeted that the measures should not “have been relaxed” in the first place, adding: “It will now be harder, and take longer, to get levels of compliance up to where we need them to be.”

But Mr Johnson said the measures – all to be brought in “next week“ – would “buy time for our scientists to understand exactly what we are dealing with”, in a very uncertain situation.

And he sought to reassure the public, saying: “Though case numbers have remained relatively high, we’re seen falling hospitalisations and falling numbers of deaths.”

The latest Covid figures revealed a further 39,567 lab-confirmed cases in the UK and 131 deaths within 28 days of a positive test – bringing the UK total to 144,724.

Earlier, the health secretary Sajid Javid said the two detected Omicron cases were “linked” and had been traced to travel to southern Africa, as he announced targeted sequence testing of other cases in the areas concerned.

Four more countries – Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia – are being added to the travel ‘red list’ from Sunday, 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 leading microbiologist Professor Calum Semple, who also sits on Sage, said some horror headlines were “hugely overstating the situation”.

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