Less than a week ago, cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi took to the airwaves to predict that such was the progress of the vaccine programme, Britain would be the first big country to use vaccines to end the pandemic. Hours after he made those comments, scientists 9,000 miles away detected a worrying Covid variant that , just days later, prompted Boris Johnson to announce emergency measures that he had hoped would never be reintroduced.
The speed at which Omicron’s initial discovery has led to the detection of cases around the world and the imposition of new restrictions has been startling. It is also a sign of desperation in Downing Street to avoid a lapse back into more severe restrictions, such as those the prime minister was forced to introduce – with great reluctance – last Christmas.
Even by Friday, with Whitehall officials scrambling to draw up options for the prime minister and cases emerging in Belgium and Israel, UK scientific advisers had concluded that the new variant was probably already here. “The predictions of the modellers are that, even if we haven’t yet found this virus on our shores, it will be there,” said professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London, speaking on Friday evening. Openshaw is a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group.
Travel restrictions were immediately placed on the countries affected, but scientists were already pushing for swift action elsewhere. “Any border restrictions are only about buying time. So if we slap them on quickly but drag our feet in doing everything else, it really is a waste of time,” said Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science. “In fact, we are particularly vulnerable, given our acceptance of chronically high levels of infection/hospitalisation/death.”
Such has been the pace of Omicron’s emergence that it was little surprise when, on Saturday, the first UK cases emerged in Brentwood and Nottingham. Contact tracers were working over the weekend to find those they may have infected. Four more African countries were then added to the government’s red list. Yet Downing Street concluded more was needed.
A prime minister who has faced criticism for his grip and style over the past few weeks tried desperately to retain his optimism on Saturday as he announced further restrictions, including compulsory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops, as well as PCR tests and self-isolation for people arriving in the UK. “I’m absolutely confident that this Christmas will be significantly better than last Christmas,” he said.
The government has, in fact, decided not to implement some of the Plan B measures in its toolkit – such as working from home and vaccine passports, which are fiercely opposed by many Tory MPs. The change on masks in England actually brought it in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where masks are already mandatory on public transport and many indoor areas.
The restrictions will also be reviewed in three weeks – another sign of prime ministerial hopes that restrictions could be eased ahead of Christmas. Equally, however, it leaves space to put further restrictions in place as more is known about the spread of the variant and its effects.
As with the Delta variant, the government believes vaccines – and the booster programme in particular – form its main line of defence. While the new variant may be able to evade vaccines in terms of infection, there are hopes jabs can reduce serious illness. It is understood that the government’s advisers on vaccine distribution are meeting over the weekend to agree that the booster programme should be offered to people younger than 40.
Professor Danny Altmann, from Imperial College London, was among those who said the move would be necessary. “Looking at the vast array of spike mutations, vaccine protection from neutralising antibodies will need to be as high as possible,” he said. “That means extending eligibility for a third boost across the age range as soon as possible. And of course, for a country where we only have about 75% [double] vaccinated, reaching out to the unvaccinated to get safe.”
Some advisers have also been worried about the double whammy effect of Britain having to deal with both the Delta variant, which is still the dominant variant in the UK, and the new Omicron variant should it establish itself quickly here.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, pointed out the high levels of infection already in the UK – though hospitalisations are falling. Last Friday’s Office for National Statistics figures showed that about 1 million people in the UK currently have Covid.
Although the new restrictions are a reminder of the fragility of the path out of the pandemic, the battles against Covid since spring 2020 have also provided huge advantages in tackling Omicron. While the new variant was flagged on Tuesday, both Novavax and Moderna – two pharmaceutical firms that produced earlier vaccines – said they were already working on a booster that would target Omicron.
Some experts also said they held out hope that, thanks to vaccines, Omicron may not cause more severe disease compared with the Delta variant. As the new measures were announced on Saturday night, Whitty acknowledged that the nation needed to be thankful for the scientific endeavours of the past 18 months: “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.”