British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a tightening of coronavirus restrictions after the Omicron variant of the virus was found in the UK. Testing and tracing will be strengthened, and indoor masking strongly advised.
Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, Johnson announced that, based on what is known so far, the recently discovered new coronavirus strain appears to be more contagious than existing variants, and “can be spread between people who are double-vaccinated”.
As such, Johnson announced a raft of new “targeted and precautionary measures” to slow its spread in the UK and “buy time” for scientists to further research the variant.
On Friday, the UK banned incoming travel from South Africa and seven other neighbouring countries, and added four more nations to the banned list on Saturday. Johnson said that, while he would not stop anyone travelling, his government would now require anyone entering the UK from abroad to take a PCR test within a day of arrival and to self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
All contacts of someone who tests positive with a suspected case of the Omicron variant will be required to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.
Johnson suggested that masks would once again be required in shops and on public transport. The UK’s previous mask mandate was lifted back in July amid a summertime lull in Covid-19 cases, but, during Saturday’s briefing, the PM did not specify whether they would be mandatory this time around, or merely advised.
Describing the “temporary and precautionary” measures as “the responsible course of action”, Johnson said they would be re-evaluated in three weeks – immediately before the Christmas holidays.
Johnson announced the new measures within hours of the first two cases of the Omicron variant being discovered in the UK, with one case having been recorded in Essex and another in Nottingham. The first-ever cases of the strain were registered earlier this month in Botswana and identified in South Africa, and, from there, rapidly became dominant in southern Africa. Omicron has since spread to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It was given its name by the World Health Organization (WHO) at an emergency meeting on Friday.
The first four Botswanan patients presenting with the new variant were all fully vaccinated, and a number of scientific bodies have warned that the current crop of Covid-19 vaccines may be ineffective against it. The European Centre for Disease Control warned on Friday that Omicron was associated with “increased transmissibility, a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness and increased risk for reinfections”.
Johnson maintained that vaccines, particularly booster shots, provided “some degree” of protection against Omicron, and announced on Saturday that his government would step up its campaign to administer boosters “to as wide a group as possible” over the coming weeks. Around 16 million Britons have already received booster shots, yet more than 250,000 new cases of the virus have been recorded in the UK every week since the beginning of October. Deaths, however, remain significantly lower than at this point last year.