Travel and face mask rules tightened over new varianton November 27, 2021 at 7:34 pm

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Boris Johnson introduces a raft of measures to slow the spread of Omicron ahead of Christmas.

Face coverings will become mandatory again in shops and on public transport in England from next week under a raft of measures to target the new Covid variant, Omicron, the PM has said.

PCR tests for everyone entering the UK will be introduced and all contacts of new variant cases will have to self-isolate, even if fully jabbed.

But Boris Johnson said Christmas would be “considerably better” than in 2020.

The measures were “temporary and precautionary”, he added.

Mr Johnson announced the restrictions at a Downing Street news conference after it was confirmed that two Omicron cases had been detected in Brentwood, Essex, and Nottingham. Officials said the cases were linked and connected to travel in southern Africa.

The new variant was first reported from South Africa on Wednesday, with early evidence suggesting it has a higher re-infection risk.

Mr Johnson said: “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 all together.”

He said the new measures would be reviewed in three weeks, by which time they should have better information about the “continuing effectiveness” of vaccines.

The prime minister said the “tightening up” of the mask rules will be outlined by Health Secretary Sajid Javid “in the next day or so”. He did not indicate when PCR tests would begin and in a press release the Department of Health would only say it was among the measures being “introduced from next week”.

Covid restrictions were tightened across the UK at Christmas in 2020 amid a surge in cases.

Asked by the BBC’s Iain Watson if the prime minister could say with any confidence that people could keep their Christmas plans this year, he replied: “We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout, and… I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas.”

Countries around the world are racing to introduce travel bans and restrictions on southern African countries in an effort to contain the variant’s spread.

Under the plans:

  • Everyone entering the UK will have to take PCR test by the second day of their arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result
  • All contacts of suspected Omicron cases must self-isolate, regardless of whether or not they are fully jabbed
  • Face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport – but hospitality settings will be exempt from the changes
  • The health secretary is to ask advisers to consider rapidly extending boosters, including reducing the gap between the second dose of the vaccine and the booster

The UK’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said was a “reasonable chance” that vaccines could be less effective against the new variant but stressed people who are vaccinated or receive the booster jab will be less likely to become seriously ill.

He said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will now need to decide whether to extend the booster vaccine down to adults age 18, and whether a second dose should be offered to children aged 12-15.

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Analysis box by Nick Eardley, political correspondent

This is a moment the government had wanted to avoid.

We’ve got used to restrictions in England being lifted. But for the first time in months, they’re now being re-imposed in response to the new variant.

And these restrictions could have a significant impact.

For example, anyone who goes on holiday will now need to pay for a PCR test and self-isolate until they get a negative result. If Omicron spreads quickly, there could be a lot of people forced to self-isolate for 10 days as close contacts.

But the government hasn’t gone for its full plan B. Masks won’t be mandatory in hospitality settings in England like they are in Scotland and Wales.

People aren’t being told to work from home – and there still aren’t plans for vaccine passports.

But it’s a sign of the uncertainty and concern in Whitehall that Boris Johnson felt he had to announce these measures.

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Both the UK cases of the Omicron variant and their households were self-isolating.

The Department of Health says testing is being carried out at locations where the cases were likely to have been infectious.

“Confirmed cases and contacts are being followed up and requested to isolate and get tested as necessary,” it added.

The health secretary said the UK vaccine rollout programme was now “even more important”.

Ten countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia – are now on the UK’s travel red list meaning, from Sunday at 04:00 GMT, all arrivals will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

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