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Coronavirus latest news: Boris Johnson announces new restrictions on travel and face masks to slow omicron variant

·23 min read

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced new travel and face mask rules in response to two cases of the omicron variant being identified in the UK.

Mr Johnson said that, from Monday, people must wear masks in shops and on public transport. There are no changes to the hospitality sector.

Anyone who enters the UK must now take a PCR test by the end of the second day after arrival and self isolate until they have a negative result.

All contacts of those who test positive with a suspected omicron case to isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status.

These rules will be reviewed in three weeks.

Follow live updates below

07:02 PM

Hospitality wouldn't survive another lockdown, warns industry chief

Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, said: “We are encouraged by the Government's decision not to mitigate against hospitality and night time economy settings, with the additional measures presented by the PM, including wearing masks within shops and on public transport in England, coupled with more stringent border controls for visitors entering the country as a first response.

“Although somewhat tentative about the coming weeks, need to be clear that the sector is still extremely fragile and will not survive further trade inhibiting restrictions or a potential lockdown."

06:58 PM

Omicron: Map showing where it is in the world

06:44 PM

Hospitalisations remain low

The PM said hospitalisations and deaths due to Covid-19 have reduced in part due to the "massive" take-up of the vaccine and successful booster programme.

This graph, presented during the Downing Street briefing this afternoon, shows that the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 in the UK remains significantly less than in April 2020.

Hospitalisations
Hospitalisations

06:31 PM

Mayor of London 'welcomes' tougher face mask rules

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has said the Government's decision to impose tighter restrictions on face masks is "welcome".

He tweeted: "Today's announcement that face coverings will be compulsory on public transport nationwide, as they already are across TfL, is welcome.

"Evidence shows they help stop the virus spreading, and this is a measure I've repeatedly urged the Government to take."

06:21 PM

Wales' response to new variant

First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford called the new omicron variant a "serious development".

He said on Twitter: "This new variant is a serious development in the ongoing pandemic. I urge everyone in Wales to continue to work together to keep each other safe.

"Please get your vaccine or booster when offered, wear a mask when necessary, and book a test if you have symptoms."

06:18 PM

Scotland's response to new variant

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said "we all have a part to play in beating" the new omicron coronavirus variant.

She tweeted: "There are no confirmed cases of omicron in (Scotland) yet, but we MUST act as if it's already here. @scotgov is introducing new requirements for travellers, but we all have a part to play in beating this new threat.

"So wear (masks), wash hands, get vaccines & test before socialising."

Nicola Sturgeon - Russell Cheyne /PA
Nicola Sturgeon - Russell Cheyne /PA

06:17 PM

Italy: First omicron case identified

Italy has detected a case of the new variant in Milan.

06:16 PM

Omicron in South Africa - doctor who alerted the authorities speaks to Telegraph

The first South African doctor to alert the authorities about patients with the omicron variant has told The Telegraph the symptoms of the new variant are unusual but mild.

Dr Angelique Coetze said she was first alerted to the possibility of a new variant when patients in her busy private practice in the capital Pretoria started to come in earlier this month with Covid-19 symptoms that didn’t make immediate sense.

Find out more about the omicron symptoms here.

06:12 PM

Omicron in the UK: What we know so far

The first UK cases of the omicron Covid variant were confirmed on Saturday.

Two people in Essex and Nottinghamshire have been found to have tested positive for the new variant, with officials carrying out mass testing in affected areas to identify further cases.

Click here to find out all we know so far about omicron and the UK.

06:09 PM

What are the new rules?

Changes have been made to travel, isolation and mask rules.

Click here to find out all you need to know after today's coronavirus briefing.

06:08 PM

Germany: Two omicron cases identified

Germany has confirmed its first two cases of the new omicron strain of Covid-19, in travellers who arrived at Munich airport from South Africa, regional officials said.

"Two suspected cases of the new virus variant omicron classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern have been confirmed in Bavaria," the health ministry of the southern state said in a statement.

06:07 PM

Mask rules should never have been relaxed, claims Manchester mayor

Following the announcement on face coverings becoming compulsory on public transport and in shops, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham tweeted: "This is right but shows why they shouldn't have been relaxed.

"It will now be harder, and take longer, to get levels of compliance up to where we need them to be."

06:06 PM

Wales follows UK on travel restrictions

The Welsh Government has confirmed it will introduce the same measures on international travel announced by Boris Johnson this afternoon.

05:59 PM

PM: 'We couldn't have responded faster'

The PM admitted the latest restrictions on travel "sound tough", but added: "That's the way it's got to be."

Asked whether the Government could have moved faster to close borders to protect the country from the new omicron variant, he added: "I really don't know how we could've acted faster.

"We got the news out about it on Thursday and we put quite a lot of southern African countries on the red list yesterday, and some more today."

Boris Johnson speaking at Downing Street - Hollie Adams /Getty Images Europe 
Boris Johnson speaking at Downing Street - Hollie Adams /Getty Images Europe

05:55 PM

Anti-viral pills need a 'rethink'

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

"We are going to have to do a bit of a rethink on the basis of this new variant just to be confident we've got the right indications from it," he said.

Professor Chris Whitty speaking at Downing Street - Jeff Gilbert
Professor Chris Whitty speaking at Downing Street - Jeff Gilbert

"There's a variety of ways you could use it in different ways, and what we need to make sure is whatever stock we've got of these, what appear to be highly effective drugs, that we use in the most effective way and for the right people.

"Where you are in the pathway right from the very beginning... working out their place, we do need to think through and I think we probably need to do a rethink of it just to make sure with the new variant we're targeting in the right direction."

05:49 PM

A toast to the scientists who produced the vaccines

Professor Chris Whitty encouraged households to "raise a glass" to the scientists who have produced the vaccines.

He said: "If I can make one Christmas plea? It would be that when people raise their glasses this Christmas, they do so to the extraordinary scientists who produce the vaccines, the diagnostics, the drugs which will allow this Christmas, if possible, to be in a very different place to what it would have been without them."

05:44 PM

Boosters could be brought in for adults as young as 18

Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will need to decide whether to extend the booster vaccine down to adults aged 18.

A second dose may also be offered to children aged 12-15 who decided with their families to get the first dose of the vaccine.

05:40 PM

Further restrictions may be brought in if omicron proves very transmissible

Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, said the UK may need to "face up" to the possibility of further action if the omicron variant is very transmissible.

"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," he said.

Sir Patrick Vallance speaking at Downing Street - Jeff Gilbert
Sir Patrick Vallance speaking at Downing Street - Jeff Gilbert

"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."

05:37 PM

Restaurants and bars: No further restrictions

Boris Johnson said there will be no changes to the rules for the hospitality sector.

05:28 PM

Transport Secretary: Masks required on public transport and some indoor settings

05:25 PM

PM: How we are dealing with omicron compared with delta

"When you look at delta, the measures we have in place are effective. You are seeing downwards tracking of hospitalisations and deaths, assisted by the booster programme and massive take-up of vaccines.

"But for omicron, we need to slow the seeding with the border measures we're taking, tough measures at the border, to give us time to find out exactly what the risk is, but give us time to have another 6 million boosters in people's arms."

People who have received their boosters
People who have received their boosters

05:19 PM

PM: Christmas this year will be better

Asked if families should prepare themselves for a disruption to their December plans, Mr Johnson said that this year's Christmas will be "considerably better" than last year.

05:16 PM

Government Chief Scientific Adviser: Defensive steps we must take

Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, said these steps must be taken:

1. Limit number of cases entering the UK

2. Limit spread in the UK when cases are identified

3. Ensure people get their booster jabs

05:13 PM

'Virtually inevitable' that omicron will spread

Countries increasingly reporting omicron cases is "virtually inevitable", said Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England.

There will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant, but there's a reasonable chance that vaccines may still be sufficient to prevent severe disease, he said.

05:10 PM

Chief Medical Officer for England outline main case trends

Professor Chris Whitty said:

  • Younger children - significant transmission and rates increasing in many parts of country.

  • Over 60s and 70s - case rates drifting downwards in people over 60 and particularly those over 70.

  • Number of people going to hospital is drifting downwards.

Deaths after people who tested positive for Covid
Deaths after people who tested positive for Covid

05:06 PM

New rules from Monday - to be reviewed in three weeks

  • Anyone who enters the UK must take a PCR test by the end of the second day after arrival and self isolate until they have a negative result.

  • All contacts of those who test positive with a suspected omicron case to isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status.

  • Mask rules being tightened up in shops and on public transport.

  • Fresh push for people to get their booster jabs.

05:05 PM

PM says 'targeted and proportionate measures' must be taken as precaution

Case numbers have remained relatively high but there's been falling hospitalisations and deaths, said the PM.

"I want to express my deep gratitude to scientists in SA who identified this new variant," he said.

"As always, there are many things we cannot know at this early stage. It does appear that omicron spreads very rapidly and can spready between people who are double vaccinated.

Boris Johnson arriving at the press conference - Jeff Gilbert
Boris Johnson arriving at the press conference - Jeff Gilbert

"It might at least in part reduce the protection of our vaccine over time.

"We need to take targeted and proportionate measures now as a precaution while find out more.

"We need to slow down the seeding of this variant in our country."

04:59 PM

Don't be alarmed by omicron, urges Imperial professor

Commenting on two cases of the omicron Covid variant being detected in the UK, Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine, Imperial College London, said: "There is no need to get alarmed, but we do need to be prepared and to take rapid action.

"It is better to act fast but be prepared to change as new information comes in. Travel restrictions may slow the rate of growth and buy time to establish the important facts about severity, immune evasion, transmission and susceptibility to treatment and prevention."

Prof Openshaw added: "With or without this new variant, Delta is already a crisis in many parts of Europe and still causing a lot of illness and death in the UK, especially in those not vaccinated or in those who do not respond to vaccines."

04:42 PM

Spain tightens restrictions for tourists

From next month, British tourists will only be allowed into Spain if they can show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, according to the Spanish government.

Until now, Britons were allowed to enter the country if they could produce a negative PCR test result taken up to 72 hours before arriving.

04:35 PM

We're optimistic current vaccine will tackle new variant, says Oxford professor

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

"At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed," he said.

"It's extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen."

04:14 PM

Omicron case in Brentwood not Chelmsford

It was previously reported that one of the omicron cases had been identified in Chelmsford, Essex.

However, Essex County Council have now confirmed that it has actually been found in Brentwood.

A spokesperson added: "This is linked to a single case from Nottingham involving international travel to South Africa."

03:59 PM

Covid 'wonder cure' could help severely ill patients

Israeli scientists are nearing completion of a "wonder cure" that can bring 70 per cent of severe Covid patients back from the brink of death and speed up recovery from the disease.

The treatment, MesenCure, is a form of cell therapy that injects healthy cells into the body which then ease extreme inflammation of the lungs - the most severe symptom of coronavirus.

This week the treatment finished phase two of the clinical trial process and its inventors hope it will soon be approved for emergency use in Israel and potentially in Britain.

Read the full story here.

03:50 PM

Variants due to lack of vaccines in poor countries, says former PM

The lack of vaccines in poorer countries is to blame for the development of new coronavirus variants, Gordon Brown has said.

The former prime minister said it is "no surprise" that new variant omicron was discovered in South Africa earlier this week, and added that new variants are developing because richer countries are "hoarding" vaccines.

His comments came after the UK placed six countries - South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia - on the red travel list following the discovery of the new variant.

03:06 PM

'Surprised if Omicron already not in US' says Antony Fauci

Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, has said that he would be "surprised" of the new omicron variant is not already in the US.

In an interview with NBC, he said that there is yet to be an confirmed case of the new strain in America. However, he added: "When you have a virus that's showing this degree of transmissibility and you're having travel-related cases... it almost invariably is going to go all over".

Meanwhile, New York has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of a winter Covid surge combined with the emerging omicron variant.

New York Governor, Kathy Hochul, has said the declaration, which goes into effect on December 3, will allow the state to acquire pandemic-fighting supplies, increase hospital capacity and fight potential staffing shortages.

It will also allow the state Health Department to limit non-essential and non-urgent procedures at hospitals.

02:34 PM

Two confirmed Omicron cases in Chelmsford and Nottingham, health secretary says

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has spoken this afternoon and said the first two UK cases of the new omicron variant were confirmed last night.

He said two people in Chelmsford, in Essex, and Nottingham have tested positive for the new strain of the virus. The two cases are linked and are thought to have contracted the virus in "southern Africa".

Mr Javid said health authorities are now undertaking "targeted" testing and sequencing of cases in those two areas to track down other potential omicron cases.

Meanwhile, the Government has confirmed that four more countries are having travel restrictions placed on them from 4am on Sunday, when hotel lockdown quarantine rules comes into force again.

The new four countries are Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

02:19 PM

First UK cases of Omicron variant confirmed

The first UK cases of the omicron Covid variant were confirmed on Saturday. Two people in Essex and Nottinghamshire have been found to have tested positive for the new variant, with officials carrying out mass testing in affected areas to identify further cases.

The new cases come as ministers are set to impose travel restrictions on further countries where the mutation has been identified. Four additional countries are due be announced after ministers imposed restrictions on travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Government is thought to be trying to track down more than 9,000 people who have come from South Africa over the last fortnight.

More than 80,000 rugby fans who attended the England South Africa game at Twickenham last weekend are now being urged to come forward for testing of the new variant.

The game operated a strict Covid pass system meaning that spectators had to show evidence of double vaccination and a negative lateral flow test.

On Saturday the MP for the area, Munira Wilson, who is also the Liberal Democrats health spokesman, said: “While I’m confident the RFU will have had the necessary protocols in place to prevent any potential spread, this serves as a reminder that we all must remain vigilant in the fight against this virus.

“Those who had flown in for the match and anyone who was in and around the stadium that day who has concerns should follow UKHSA advice in coming forward and getting tested.

“More broadly, the emergence of this new variant stresses the need to donate vaccines through the COVAX programme. Ministers must spring into action and recognise no one is safe from Covid until we all are safe.”

01:18 PM

Hungary to tighten controls on air travel from seven African countries

Hungary will impose restrictions on travellers from Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the government said on Saturday after a new coronavirus variant was detected in South Africa.

Hungary said it was joining a European Union move to curb air travel from southern Africa and that its measures would be published in a government decree later in the day.

On Friday, all 27 EU member states "agreed on the need to activate the emergency brake & impose temporary restrictions on all travel into EU from southern Africa", the current Slovenian presidency of the EU said on Twitter.

01:01 PM

Omicron is 'likely already in US'

Omicron has not yet been identified in the United States, but it is likely already here, scientists said.

Even without the new variant, US Covid-19 rates have increased in recent weeks, mainly in northern states, as people move indoors to avoid winter weather.

Some countries have moved to limit travel from southern Africa. Beyond government restrictions, individuals should still assess their own vulnerability to Covid-19 and tolerance for risk as they make travel decisions for the winter holidays, Snyder from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said.

He and others said vaccination should remain a priority despite questions about effectiveness against omicron, because it is likely that they still remain protective to a certain extent. Everyone should also continue to wear masks, avoid crowds, ventilate rooms, and wash hands.

"We have all those tools that will work against any variant," said Dr Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

12:48 PM

How worried should we be about the omicron variant?

The new variant - identified first in South Africa, but also detected in Europe and Asia - is raising concern worldwide.

So why are scientists worried?

  • The World Health Organization on Friday classified it "variant of concern," saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of coronavirus.

  • Scientists say it could be several more weeks before they can define the type of disease caused by the variant, determine how contagious it is and identify how far it has already spread.

  • Experts also don't yet know whether omicron will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other strains.

  • But the biggest question remains whether protection from vaccines will hold up. And, will people previously infected with the coronavirus be immune from infection with omicron?

12:29 PM

Where's seen a rise in Covid-19 deaths since the summer?

Across Europe deaths are rising as the fourth wave takes hold. So far the Czech Republic has seen the largest increase in deaths per million people. Up next is Austria, followed by Germany.

12:08 PM

Why is the latest Covid variant called omicron?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the new coronavirus variant omicron, skipping two letters of the Greek alphabet, Nu and Xi, to avoid giving what is perhaps the most dangerous variant yet the same name as President Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

In May 2021, the World Health Organization announced that new variants of SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus causing the global pandemic — would be named after Greek letters, and not the country or locale in which they were first identified.

Beforehand, the only official labels were assigned by scientific databases and featured a letter followed by a string of numbers, such as B.1.1.7, P.1 and B.1.351.

As a result, these clunky names were replaced colloquially by the name of the place where they were first found, such as Kent, Brazil and South Africa.

But health officials were concerned about discrimination, prejudice and stigmatiation of people from these places and sought a naming system that avoided this.

Names of birds were suggested, but the WHO settled on the Greek alphabet as an inoffensive and easy to digest nomenclature system.

All pre-existing variants were retrospectively named in order of their emergence, while those that emerged later took up the next available letter in the alphabet.

And thus, the Kent variant became known as alpha, South African became eta, Brazilian became gamma and the Indian variant was rebadged as delta.

But aside from these well-known forms, there have been 9 others, stretching all the way down to Mu.

However, on Friday, the World Health Organization broke from this orderly system and called the 13th variant omicron, the 15th letter of the alphabet.

Nu, the 13th letter of the alphabet, was likely skipped to avoid confusion about the new Nu variant, but no explanation has yet been given by the WHO.

It is also unclear if Nu and Xi will be used as variant names in the future.

11:53 AM

Concerns trigger more travel curbs on southern Africa

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world - including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations - announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa on Friday.

On Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens and their dependents returning from there.

Japan said it would extend its tightened border controls to three more African countries after imposing curbs on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho on Friday.

Sri Lanka, Thailand and Oman also announced travel curbs on southern African nations.

11:38 AM

South Africa 'punished' for detecting omicron variant

South Africa said Saturday it is being "punished" for detecting a new Covid-19 variant omicron which the World Health Organization has termed a "variant of concern" and is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain.

The decision by a number of countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant "is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker," the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.

11:15 AM

Czechs report suspected case of omicron variant of coronavirus

The Czech Republic is examining a suspected case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus detected in a person who spent time in Namibia, the National Institute of Public Health said on Saturday.

"A lab is checking a possible find of a positive specimen of the omicron variant. We are awaiting confirmation or refutation of the case," spokesperson Stepanka Cechova said in an emailed statement.

11:02 AM

Strain poses a 'high to very high risk' to Europe

EU health authorities have said the new strain poses a "high to very high risk" to the continent.

In the Netherlands all passengers who tested positive must stay in quarantine at the hotel for seven days if they show symptoms and for five days if they do not, the GGD said.

Passengers who tested negative, but who are remaining in the Netherlands, are expected to isolate at home.

"We understand that people are frustrated by this," the statement added, "people have just made a long trip with the idea that they will shortly be home," it said.

"Instead just after landing, they are confronted with a situation we have never before experienced in the Netherlands, namely that people have to be tested at Schiphol and are forced to wait until they get a result."

Those who do not live in the Netherlands can "continue their journey", it said.