As the Omicron Covid variant is found in the UK, it’s time to mask up, even you Boris… it’s face coverings, boosters and travel bans to save Christmas but the PM puts in another shambolic performance at a Covid briefing
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Dithering Boris Johnson was accused of having no plan B as the Omicron superstrain of Covid hit Britain today.
The bungling PM was blasted over his wishy-washy response with the nation potentially facing the most dangerous variant seen so far.
The mutant is thought be more contagious than the Delta strain now triggering up to 50,000 infections a day here.
And scientists are worried ominous Omicron could blunt the potency of vaccines.
But days after his car crash Peppa Pig speech to business leaders, the PM put in another shambolic performance at a Covid briefing.
Any form of hard-hitting battle plan was as invisible as his Covid masks seem to be.
It took a question from a reporter to confirm that face-coverings would be compulsory in shops and on public transport, as well as PCR tests for arrivals to the UK within two days, and 10-day self-isolation for close contacts of positive cases.
But there was no mention of possible Plan B measures such as working from home, social distancing or the use of Covid passes. Mr Johnson said he hoped to roll out the booster jabs programme “as wide as possible” – without suggesting who could be eligible. He said he hoped to oversee another six million boosters in the next three weeks in England – the same number as in the previous three weeks.
And he pledged: “I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas.”
The Omicron virus has a worrying 50 mutations, 30 of them in the virus spikes – the grappling hooks Covid uses to attach to human cells. Scientists fear its catalogue of mutations make it far more transmissible and make vaccines less effective.
Prof Christina Pagel of University College London warned: “We could well get blown up by this new variant.” Shadow health minister Justin Madders said it was “astonishing” the PM offered so little in his address to the nation.
He said: “Yet again there is no Plan B from this dithering PM. We know we need to go hard on Omicron but what we got was vague and uncertain.”
The two cases of Omicron in the UK are in Brentwood, Essex, and Nottingham. They are linked and involved travel to South Africa.
Mr Johnson warned Omicron “spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people double vaccinated”.
But he offered no deadline for the return of compulsory masks, saying Health Secretary Sajid Javid would sort it “in the course of the next day or so”.
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Booster jabs are only currently approved for over-40s and those with underlying conditions. But Mr Javid is said to be anxious to roll out third jabs to all adults.
Prof Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said the Government needed to learn from its slow reaction to the spread of Delta. He said: “We cannot afford to fail again.”
Omicron, known officially as B.1.1.529, was first identified in Botswana on November 11. It since been detected in Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. Germany, Australia and the Czech Republic also announced suspected cases today, while Dutch scientists were running tests on 61 arrivals from South Africa who tested positive for Covid. It is thought around 15,000 people have flown into the UK from South Africa since the variant was detected.
Meanwhile the Delta variant is still rampaging across Europe with Austria, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland suffering higher infection rates than here. In England hospitalisations and deaths are still high, with infections only falling for the over-60s. The fastest growth is in children aged between five and nine.
Omicron’s arrival comes as up to 10,000 Test and Trace call handlers face the axe as contracts with outsource giants Serco and Sitel end on Tuesday.
The UK Health Security Agency instead plans to tell close contacts of Covid positive cases to self-isolate via emails and texts. Follow-up calls to check people doing it will also end.
A Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice spokesman said Omicron was the “doomsday scenario we’ve dreaded. Boris Johnson must act immediately. The losses of our loved ones must not be in vain.”
More than 46 million people in the UK have had two doses of a Covid vaccine, while 17.1 million have had a third. Figures show the UK averaged 42,000 new cases per day last week and 127 average daily deaths. England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said it is “inevitable” Omicron will spread across the world in the next few days.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the UK may need to face up to the possibility of further action if the variant is confirmed as very transmissible. Travel from six southern African countries has already been banned and Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola were also put on the red list today.
All arrivals will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days from today. Rollout of a Covid anti-viral pill, approved for use in the UK, now needs a “rethink” because of Omicron.
Prof Whitty said its rollout must be reconsidered to make sure it is targeted “in the right direction”.
Carol Popplestone of the Royal College of Nursing welcomed the reintroduction of mandatory masks. “This is something we have already called for and it should not have been a new variant that forced the Prime Minister into action.”
Last night London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the decision to impose tighter mask rules was “welcome”. He tweeted: “Evidence shows they help stop the virus spreading. It’s a measure I’ve repeatedly urged the Government to take.”
World races to set new travel bans
By Karen Rockett
Countries around the world are rushing to introduce stringent travel bans and restrictions in an effort to contain the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.
At least 61 new cases of the virus have entered the Netherlands from South Africa as fears mount over the spread of the super-mutant variant.
Around 600 passengers arrived on two planes at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport from Johannesburg — the epicentre of the new strain — hours after travel bans were put in place. The 539 passengers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue their journeys to other countries.
Europe’s first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium on Friday. The unvaccinated woman caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt. And today Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic confirmed suspected cases.
Germany’s initial sequencing suggests a traveller from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Australia, which has banned travel to nine countries in the region, fears the variant may have already entered the country. And from tomorrow, the US will restrict travel to and from South Africa and seven neighbouring countries following similar flight bans imposed by the EU and UK.
Latest figures from South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases, more than double the 1,374 recorded a week ago, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket.
Meanwhile, stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic suffered their biggest falls in over a year.
From next week, Spain will only allow in fully vaccinated British tourists – negative PCR tests will no longer be enough.