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The new Covid rules set out to curb spread of the omicron variant

England will on Tuesday face new restrictions to try to tackle the omicron variant of Covid-19 that is causing significant concern among scientists. 

Already, three cases have been identified in the UK - one in Nottingham, a second in Brentwood, Essex and a third individual, who is no longer in the country but was in Westminster during their visit - and they are believed to have been contracted it in southern Africa. 

On Monday morning six cases of the omicron variant were identified in Scotland, the Scottish Government announced.

The Scottish Government said that four of the variant cases identified in Scotland are in the Lanarkshire area, with two in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area.

Nicola Sturgeon will use her keynote speech on Monday to the SNP conference to tell of "profound concern" at the new strain, and will plead with the public to make renewed efforts to step-up compliance with existing rules and advice. 

Flanked by England's Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, and the Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Prime Minister held an unexpected press conference on Saturday and announced a series of tighter restrictions that will come into force from 4am Tuesday 30 Nov.

The new restrictions are as follows: 

  1. Anyone arriving in the UK will be asked to take a PCR test for Covid-19 by the second day and must self-isolate until they provide a negative test.
  2. All contacts of people who do test positive with the suspected variant will have to self-isolate for 10 days. The Government confirmed that this applies to children. 
  3. The rules on face coverings are changing. They will become compulsory on public transport and in shops from next week, but not including hospitality. Teachers and pupils in Year 7 and above are now being "strongly advised" to wear masks in communal areas outside classrooms in England.

Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola will face travel restrictions from Sunday, when they will join South Africa and five other neighbouring nations on England's red list.

Mr Johnson told the press conference: "We're not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that, we're not going to stop people travelling, but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.

"Second, we need to slow down the spread of this variant here in the UK, because measures at the border can only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant rather than stop it altogether.

"We will require all contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of omicron to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of your vaccination status.

"We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport." 

Extending the booster programme

A decision from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) on expanding the booster vaccine down to adults aged 18 and cutting the gap before a third dose could come as early as Monday. 

JCVI deputy chairman Professor Anthony Harnden said extending the age range for boosters and reducing the gap between second and third doses was "a sensible strategy".

He told BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House that adults aged 18 to 39 should expect third jabs to be offered to them "earlier than we had previously envisaged".

The group was also considering whether second doses should be offered to 12- to 15-year-olds.

Whitehall sources were hopeful the decision may come on Monday, but could not rule out Tuesday for the JCVI's announcement.

On Saturday, Sir Patrick Vallance said vaccine makers were already looking at how they could make them more effective against emerging variants, and that a jab designed to specifically target the omicron variant could be created in "about 100 days".

He told the Downing Street press conference: "I think it's important to recognise there are three ways in which this can be done and the companies are thinking about this. The first is the boosters will give high enough antibody coverage that actually that's going to be enough to cover this. That's the first situation and needs to be tested. But that looks like something that anyway is going to give protection, whether there's more needed on top of that we'll have to see.

"The second is that vaccine manufacturers have been producing broader vaccines anyway to get broader coverage across potential new variants. So those are in the pipeline.

"Then a couple of companies have already said they could tweak their existing vaccines and get a new vaccine out specifically against this in about 100 days.

"Those are the sort of three scenarios, clearly the one which is the one to really go for now is boost, because it is the case that as you keep boosting the vaccine, you get slightly broader coverage because the immune system knows it needs to get broader.

"Because the antibody levels are so high, it actually causes enough coverage of other variants to be effective."

Meanwhile, Prof Whitty said anti-viral pills for Covid-19, which were approved by the UK earlier this month, needed a "rethink" because of the new variant.

The Prime Minister said the "temporary and precautionary" measures would be reviewed in three weeks, just a week before Christmas.

He continued: "We need to bolster our protections against this new variant.

"We don't yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against omicron but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection.

"If you're boosted, your response is likely to be stronger so it's more vital than ever that people get their jabs and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible.

"From today we're going to boost the booster campaign, we're already planning to do six million jabs in England alone over the next three weeks and now we're looking to go further.

"The Health Secretary has asked the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) to consider giving boosters to as wide a group as possible as well as reducing the gap between your second dose and your booster."

Will Christmas be cancelled?

The Prime Minister said he was "confident" this Christmas "will be considerably better than last Christmas".

Questioned about the prospect for this year's festivities, he said: "We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout and I think I'm going to stick with the formula I've used before, which is I'm pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas."

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told families they should plan for a "great" Christmas "as normal" and insisted it was "nowhere near" time to reintroduce social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance.

It was hoped the new measures would buy time for scientists to gain greater understanding of Omicron as ministers put the NHS on notice to deliver many more vaccines every day.

Mr Javid said it "would be irresponsible to make guarantees" during the ever-changing pandemic, but he told Sky's Trevor Phillips on Sunday: "I think people should continue with their plans as normal for Christmas, I think it's going to be a great Christmas."

With the Government stopping short of introducing its plan B to tackle Covid-19 this winter, Mr Javid played down any need to reintroduce social distancing rules or work-from-home guidance.

He warned of the "very heavy price" of additional restrictions, adding: "So, if one was to make decisions like that they would have to be done very, very carefully and we're not there yet, we're nowhere near that."

However, Sir Patrick said on Saturday that the UK might need to "face up" to the possibility of further action if the omicron variant is very transmissible.

He said: "I think we'll get more information on transmissibility, we'll get more information on the ability of the vaccines to protect against the virus, but that's going to take a little bit of time.

"At the moment, the models are more 'if it spreads very fast, of course it's going to spread very fast and go into a lot of places, and if it spreads less fast it's going to do so less'.

"But if it's very transmissible and does cause big escape, then clearly that's a major issue we have to face up to.

"But that isn't what we know at the moment, we need to get that information."