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Omicron variant has squandered UK’s progress in pandemic, top scientist warns


The discovery of the omicron Covid variant has shown the world is far from the end of the pandemic and is in fact “closer to the start”, one of Britain’s most senior scientific figures has warned.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, who stepped down last year from the government’s scientific advisory group (Sage), was critical of the “lack of leadership” in tackling Covid and said that progress in combatting the disease was “being squandered” since the new variant emerged.

Writing in the Observer, the director of the Wellcome Trust lamented vaccine inequity between rich and poorer nations and warned of the dangers of causing new variants.

“The longer this virus continues to spread in largely unvaccinated populations globally, the more likely it is that a variant that can overcome our vaccines and treatments will emerge,” he writes. “If that happens, we could be close to square one.

“This political drift and lack of leadership is prolonging the pandemic for everyone, with governments unwilling to really address inequitable access to the vaccines, tests and treatment. There have been wonderful speeches, warm words, but not the actions needed to ensure fair access to what we know works and would bring the pandemic to a close.”

Sir Farrar’s warning comes as the government introduced new measures in an attempt to curb the spread of omicron – which is now being transmitted in communties, UK officials have said. From 4am on Tuesday, travellers will have to complete a lateral flow or PCR test 48 hours before entering the country. Nigeria has been added to the red list, and from 4am on Monday arrivals will have to quarantine in hotels.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper welcomed the “U-turn” after ministers previously resisted calls to reintroduce pre-departure tests, but said they should have moved sooner.

“We badly need them to learn the lessons on the importance of acting quickly on Covid border measures rather than each time having to be put under huge pressure to finally act,” she said.

Health secretary Sajid Javid said the move was “in light of the most recent data” but insisted that booster jabs were the first line of defence as he urged the public to get their shots. Some groups, however, have criticised the NHS’ booster campaign programme as the most vulnerable still struggle to get their third jabs.

Fiona Loud, policy director at Kidney Care UK, said: “Whilst we are hearing from fewer kidney patients having issues, it is not good enough that there are still individuals who haven’t had their third dose yet.

“With a new variant of concern it is even more important than ever that people who have a lower immune system, because of their disease or treatment, get the maximum chances for protection.

Kidney Care UK said issues around accessing a third dose were “mostly centred” around confusion as to how the vaccines are being deployed locally, as this varies from location to location.

Rachel Kahn, research communications manager at Blood Cancer UK, said: “Our community have found it incredibly difficult to access a third vaccine dose over the last few months.

“With Sajid Javid announcing that they are now eligible for a booster, we hope NHS England will rectify these issues quickly to ensure our community can easily access their booster jabs and have the best possible chance of protection from covid, including the new variant omicron.”



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