New rules on masks, travel and self-isolation will not stay 'a day longer' than necessary, Sajid Javid promised last night, as the Government rejected calls from Labour and the SNP for tougher curbs.
The Health Secretary defended the decision to resurrect Covid restrictions, saying the 'responsible steps' were 'proportionate to the threat that we face' from the new Omicron strain.
From today it will be mandatory to wear a face mask in shops and on public transport, with fines of £200.
Anyone identified as a contact of someone testing positive will be required to self-isolate for ten days, even if they are fully vaccinated. And travellers returning from abroad will be ordered to isolate at home until they have received a negative PCR result, which typically takes three days.
The Health Secretary defended the decision to resurrect Covid restrictions, saying the 'responsible steps' were 'proportionate to the threat that we face' from the new Omicron strain
The rules will initially last for three weeks, although Whitehall sources last night acknowledged they were likely to continue into the New Year.
The corona strains that simply vanished
BY SHAUN WOOLLER, HEALTH CORRESPONDENT FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Earlier Covid variants caused alarm when they first emerged but fizzled out without having a major impact on Britain.
The Beta variant was first detected in South Africa and the Gamma variant in Brazil.
Scientists warned that mutations within these strains meant they could partially evade existing immunity and may be more infectious. However, there have only been around 1,000 cases of Beta in the UK and fewer than 300 Gamma.
Experts say the latest variant, Omicron, could also prove to be a 'flash in the pan'.
The Beta variant was detected in October 2020 and at its peak, in December, accounted for 52 per cent of cases in Africa. But globally it never accounted for more than 2 per cent of cases at any point and it reached a high of just 0.7 per cent in Europe, including the UK.
The Gamma variant accounted for 78 per cent of cases in South America at its peak. But this also remained fairly contained, accounting for a high of 8 per cent of cases worldwide and 0.2 per cent in Europe, including the UK. Beta and Gamma now each account for a mere 0.1 per cent of cases globally, compared to over 98 per cent for Delta.
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at Reading University, said of Omicron: 'People should not panic.
'It may cause us real problems but that is far from certain at this point.'
Labour and the SNP yesterday called on Boris Johnson to impose tougher restrictions. In a joint letter, Scottish and Welsh first ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford said travellers should be forced to self-isolate for at least eight days, regardless of their vaccination status or where they had come from.
The two leaders claimed that 'public health advice is unequivocal that this is the best and safest way to protect against the importation of this variant'.
Miss Sturgeon said that while she was hoping for the best, people should 'prepare for the worst'. Both leaders are also urging people to work from home. And they demanded Treasury guarantees that they would be funded to operate their own furlough schemes if they wanted to order businesses to close down.
Labour also went further in England, demanding that masks should be made compulsory in pubs and restaurants.
Downing Street rejected the call to extend self-isolation for travel. The PM's official spokesman said: 'We believe our approach is proportionate given the evidence we currently have. Introducing further isolation and testing would have a deleterious effect on the travel industry, and indeed those who are planning to go travelling.'
No 10 also rejected the idea of ordering office staff to work from home again, saying it was a matter for employers. Mr Javid indicated that ministers were wary of taking any action that could further damage the hard-hit hospitality sector.
He tried to reassure MPs the measures were a precaution to give scientists time to analyse the threat posed by Omicron.
He said the variant 'may have given the virus extra legs' in the race between the disease and vaccines. But he added: 'If it emerges that this variant is no more dangerous than the Delta variant, then we won't keep measures in place for a day longer than is necessary.'
Mr Javid said hospitalisations would be 'what matters more than anything' in deciding whether more measures are needed.
Former Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns said the Government was right to reject calls for tougher mea-sures, saying many had been in place in Wales since summer 'yet infection rates are still much higher'.
The new rules came into force at 4am today and will stay in place initially until December 21.
MPs will vote on the regulations tonight, with ministers braced for a rebellion by Tory MPs opposed to the return of any restrictions.
Pictured: The new coronavirus rules coming into force today across England in a bid to curb the spread of the Omicron variant
I've seen nothing in this variant that warrants Britain's extreme response to it
Commentary by Dr Angelique Coetzee
As chair of the South African Medical Association and a GP of 33 years' standing, I have seen a lot over my medical career.
But nothing has prepared me for the extraordinary global reaction that met my announcement this week that I had seen a young man in my surgery who had a case of Covid that turned out to be the Omicron variant.
This version of the virus had been circulating in southern Africa for some time, having been previously identified in Botswana.
But given my public-facing role, by announcing its presence in my own patient, I unwittingly brought it to global attention.
Quite simply, I have been stunned at the response – and especially from Britain.
And let me be clear: nothing I have seen about this new variant warrants the extreme action the UK government has taken in response to it.
No one here in South Africa is known to have been hospitalised with the Omicron variant, nor is anyone here believed to have fallen seriously ill with it.
Yet Britain and other European nations have reacted with heavy travel restrictions on flights from across southern Africa, as well as imposing tighter rules at home on mask-wearing, fines and extended quarantines.
The simple truth is: we don't know yet anywhere near enough about Omicron to make such judgments or to impose such policies.
In South Africa, we've retained a sense of perspective. We've had no new regulations or talk of lockdowns because we're waiting to see what the variant actually means.
Nothing has prepared me for the extraordinary global reaction that met my announcement this week that I had seen a young man in my surgery who had a case of Covid that turned out to be the Omicron variant, writes Dr Angelique Coetzee
We've also become accustomed here to new Covid variants emerging. So when our scientists confirmed the discovery of yet another, nobody made a huge thing of it. Many people didn't even notice.
But after Britain heard about it, the global picture started to change.
Even as our scientists tried to point out the huge gaps in the world's knowledge about this variant, European nations immediately and unilaterally banned travel from this part of the world.
Our government was understandably ang-ered by this, pointing out that 'Excellent science should be applauded, not punished.'
If, as some evidence suggests, Omicron turns out to be a fast-spreading virus with mostly mild symptoms for the majority of the people who catch it, that would be a useful step on the road to herd immunity.
We'll learn in the next two weeks if that's the case.
Even as our scientists tried to point out the huge gaps in the world's knowledge about this variant, European nations immediately and unilaterally banned travel from this part of the world (stock image)
The worst situation – of course – would be a fast-spreading virus with severe infections. But that's not where we are at the moment.
Here in South Africa, what I and my GP colleagues are seeing doesn't in any way warrant the knee-jerk reaction we've seen from the UK.
For one thing, we're not – at least for now – treating patients who are severely ill.
Take my first Omicron case, the young man I mentioned earlier. It didn't occur to him that he had Covid: he thought he'd had too much sun after working outside. After he tested positive, so did his wife and four-month-old baby.
So far, the patients who've tested positive for Omicron here have been mainly young men – a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated (though, in our statistics, 'unvaccinated' can also mean 'single-vaccinated').
Only yesterday, I saw five more patients who had tested positive for the new variant. They all had a very mild illness.
So, at the moment, I'm afraid it seems to me that Britain is merely hyping up the alarm about this variant unnecessarily.
Yes, the picture might one day look different. I have yet to see older, unvaccinated people infected with the new variant, for example, and they might well present with a more severe form of the disease.
But the reality is that Covid is something we have to learn to live with. Look after yourself and get your vaccines. Above all, don't panic – and that goes for governments as well.
■ Dr Coetzee is chair of the South African Medical Association
Eight reasons we should still have a great Christmas
BY ELEANOR HAYWARD, HEALTH CORRESPONDENT FOR THE DAILY MAIL
It has all felt depressingly familiar: with Christmas around the corner, a mutant variant has emerged and alarmist voices are calling for the return of Covid restrictions. But while concern about Omicron is understandable, scientists are also confident we can fight off the threat. Many predict vaccines will still protect against severe disease and say there is no sign of the new strain causing an increase in hospital admissions. They also point out it would be difficult for Omicron to get around the 'T-cell immunity' many of us now have. Here are the key reasons why, unlike last year, we can look forward to a happy Christmas:
It has been suggested that the Omicron variant will be better at evading the immunity given by existing vaccines because of the 'unprecedented' 32 mutations to its spike protein - the part of the virus targeted by antibodies. But in the last 48 hours many scientists have offered reassurance on this issue. Yesterday, Jonathan Van-Tam, England's deputy chief medical officer, urged against 'panic' and said he hoped the vaccines would still prevent serious illness. Professor Salim Abdool Karim, South Africa's chief Covid adviser during the initial response to the pandemic, said existing vaccines remained 'strong' at preventing severe disease and hospitalisation. On top of antibodies, there are other crucial components to the immune system – such as T-cells – which are less easily fooled by mutations.
The remarkable success of booster jabs has exceeded all scientific expectations: they top up immunity to even higher levels than after the second dose. Therefore increased antibodies from boosters should 'mitigate' the impact of any decreased protection against Omicron. As Professor Wei Shen Lim, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said: 'That higher level of immune response will reach out and provide an extra level of protection.'
Early indications suggest Omicron is more infectious, but there is no evidence it causes more severe disease or more deaths. On the contrary, some South African doctors say symptoms so far are 'extremely mild'. And yesterday Professor Van-Tam reassured the public: 'If vaccine effectiveness is reduced, the biggest effect is likely to be in preventing infections – there will be smaller effects on preventing severe disease.' While cases are increasing in southern Africa, there is yet to be a spike in hospitalisations or death. Key drugs, including dexamethasone and antivirals, will still work against Omicron.
In the highly unlikely event that Omicron entirely circumvents existing vaccines, scientists are ready to fight back. Pfizer say it will take just 100 days to roll out a tweaked version of its jab so it can target the new variant. AstraZeneca and Moderna are also rapidly preparing Omicron-specific jabs.
Given the level of panic triggered by the new variant, you could be forgiven for assuming it is definitely more infectious, deadly, or better at evading vaccines. In reality, there is as yet still no solid evidence for any of these theories. As Professor Van-Tam, who gave a Downing Street briefing yesterday, said: 'We don't know what's going to happen next. The next three weeks are going to be weeks of scientific uncertainty.' There are several examples of other variants that have seemed scary in theory but came to nothing.
Speed of response
Two previous mutant variants have become dominant: Alpha and Delta. In both cases, they had already spread around the world by the time scientists realised they existed. In contrast, it took just three days between South African scientists identifying Omicron last Tuesday and Britain banning flights. This has bought crucial time for scientists to slow the spread, investigate the variant and, most importantly, for people to get their booster jabs.
Britain's stable epidemic
While Covid chaos has reigned across Europe in recent weeks, cases have remained stable in the UK and deaths are falling. Hospital admissions are down and there are 7,530 patients in NHS hospitals with Covid – down from 9,666 on November 1 and almost 40,000 at the January peak. Should there be an Omicron wave, the UK is in a good position to deal with it.
Ministers have consistently stressed a Christmas lockdown would be considered only if a dramatic turn of events meant Britain suddenly faced catastrophe. Health Secretary Sajid Javid has told families to plan 'as normal' for a 'great Christmas'. He suggested yesterday that the rate of hospitalisations was the key metric for deciding on restrictions, and the numbers being admitted to hospital in the UK are falling. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty suggested last week that people might be unlikely to tolerate another lockdown.