Community transmission of the new Omicron coronavirus variant is now ‘likely’ to be happening in England, the Health Secretary said.

The variant has been designated ‘of concern’ by the World Health Organisation after it was first reported in South Africa last week.

Since then, six southern African countries have been put on the red list for international travel, with direct flights from them banned while scientists try to work out how dangerous the new strain is.

It has a number of worrying mutations to its spike protein which could mean vaccines are less effective, while it is also believed to be more transmissible.

However, as it has still only recently been identified, it is still too early to say which proportion of people catching it need hospital treatment or how well it can evade previous immunity.

There have now been 13 cases of the variant found in England, with another nine in Scotland.

Some of those cases were linked to people with recent travel to South Africa, but others had no obvious travel link.

Sajid Javid gave the update at a press briefing this afternoon, saying: ‘The cases that we identified at the start of the weekend, we were able to confirm quickly that they were linked to travel to South Africa. They were also part of one sort of family cluster.

‘The recent cases that we’ve confirmed today, we’re not able to say whether or not, at this point … we don’t know, we’re doing that work right now at speed to determine whether they all have a link to South Africa or not.

‘Is there likely to be community transmission? I think we have to be realistic, there is likely to be, as we’re seeing in other European countries.

‘And also, as I said earlier … we would expect cases to rise as we now actively look for cases, because now having identified the variant and our concerns around it, UKHSA is actively looking back at anyone who’s travelled to South Africa over the last 10 days or so, and searching for these cases and taking action of course if they find them.’

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, also warned: ‘It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing.

‘That’s why it’s critical that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms isolates and gets a PCR test immediately.’

There have been ten Omicron cases found in London (two in Barnet, one in Brentwood, two in Camden, one in Haringey, one in Sutton, one in Wandsworth and two in Westminster), one in Liverpool, one in north Norfolk, and one in Nottingham.

Meanwhile, Scotland has confirmed nine cases of Omicron, which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said are all linked to a single event.

None of those nine infected had any known links to travel in southern Africa.

Ms Sturgeon said that none had needed hospital treatment for the virus after testing positive on November 23 following a ‘private event’ three days earlier.

Yesterday, the government in England announced all adults will be eligible for a booster jab three months after their second dose.

Boris Johnson said vaccine centres will be ‘popping up like Christmas trees’ to ensure everyone is offered their third shot by January, with military personnel drafted in to help healthcare workers.

‘Our best single defence against Omicron is to get vaccinated and get boosted,’ the prime minister said.

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