Health secretary Sajid Javid on Monday confirmed that community transmission of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus was occurring in England, as the number of cases climbed to 336 across the UK.
Javid told the House of Commons there remained many unknowns in relation to the variant first identified in South Africa, but said the government would leave nothing to “chance” and proceed with “proportionate” measures.
“We don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with vaccines,” he told MPs. “We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.”
Javid said 261 Omicron cases have been identified in England, 71 in Scotland and 4 in Wales, adding that several cases were not linked to travel abroad.
“It is highly likely that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England,” the health secretary said.
Despite the spread of the new variant, Boris Johnson, prime minister, earlier on Monday defended the government’s strategy, arguing that more time was needed to assess the true impact of Omicron.
“We’re still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisations,” he told reporters while on a visit to Merseyside.
Over the weekend, the government announced fresh changes to travel restrictions. From 4am on Tuesday, all passengers arriving into the UK, regardless of their vaccination status, will be required to show proof of a negative pre-departure coronavirus test.
Meanwhile, Nigeria was added to the red list of countries, meaning that from Tuesday, individuals who are not UK or Irish nationals and have been in Nigeria over the past 10 days, will not be permitted to enter the UK.
“Analysis from [UK Health Security Agency] shows that at least 21 Omicron cases in England alone are linked to travel from Nigeria,” Javid said, adding the country had “very strong travel links with South Africa” and was the second most popular flight destination from Johannesburg.
The health secretary confirmed MPs would be given a further update on the situation next week, adding that the government’s strategy was to buy time and strengthen defences while scientists assess the new variant.
“As soon as they [the restrictions] can be removed we will and I think that is what industry and others will want to see,” he said, adding that the current measures were temporary.
Last week, more than 20 Conservative MPs voted against government proposals on self-isolation and the return of mandatory mask-wearing within settings such as public transport, in a sign of growing backbencher frustration.
Speaking in the House of Commons, former prime minister Theresa May voiced her concerns.
“Variants will continue to appear, year after year, when is the government going to accept that learning to live with Covid — which we all have to do — means we will almost certainly have an annual vaccine and that we cannot respond to new variants by stopping and starting sectors of our economy,” she told MPs.
Another Tory MP argued: “We are not in the same position as we were last winter, and the public alongside backbenchers are growing increasingly uneasy with the increasing introduction of new rules.”