As an alarming new Covid variant spread to Europe on Friday, scientists warned that it would inevitably reach Britain, while ministers faced calls to urgently speed up the vaccination programme.
Thousands of travellers were left stranded or with their plans in disarray after flight bans were introduced targeting countries across southern Africa, where the variant was discovered. Hotel quarantine and enhanced testing will be brought in across the UK, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said.
B.1.1.529, or Omicron, was designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Friday night, due to its “concerning” mutations and because “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant”.
It is feared to have an R (reproduction) value of 2 with the potential to evade vaccines. Javid said it “may pose substantial risk to public health”.
Belgium reported a case in a traveller who had been in Egypt and Turkey rather than southern Africa, suggesting community transmission, while cases were also detected in Israel and Hong Kong. Experts predict it is only a matter of time before it reaches Britain.
No 10 is still debating further steps to prevent or delay its arrival. But Labour called on ministers to bring forward booster jabs by a month for over-50s to create a five-month gap and demanded an update on when under-40s can expect approval for their third vaccinations.
Discussions are live within government over what would trigger a move to “plan B” including mandatory mask wearing, working from home, Covid passports and other measures. Javid said on Friday there was no change yet, but added: “If we need to go further, we will.”
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said it was his “greatest worry” that people may not abide by a return to restrictions after almost two years of the pandemic. “If we need to do something more muscular at some point, whether it’s for the current new variant or at some later stage, can we still take people with us?”
However, he said he believed the public would overall be responsive “provided you are clear with people what the logic is, provided they feel that we’re being entirely straight with them as to all the data.”
With scientists still unsure whether Omicron poses a greater danger than other variants, further developments included:
Thousands of UK nationals face paying thousands of pounds for mandatory hotel quarantine on their return from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia after Sunday. Non-UK and Irish nationals from those countries will be banned, while people arriving before Sunday at 4pm will have to take PCR tests and quarantine at home.
The EU agreed there was a need to suspend flights from southern African countries following restrictions announced by countries including the UK, Japan, Germany, Italy and Spain. The US and Canada also brought in travel curbs on Friday night.
South Africa said it was “unjustified” for other countries to impose travel bans and Boris Johnson held a call with the country’s president Cyril Ramaphosa to discuss the restrictions.
The FTSE 100 had its worst day since June 2020, closing down 3.6%, with £72bn wiped off the index. British Airways owner IAG ended the day nearly 15% lower, while Rolls-Royce slumped more than 11%.
As the UK saw 50,091 daily Covid cases and 160 more coronavirus-related deaths on Friday – the highest level in a month – scientists said it was highly likely that the variant will come to the UK, risking a surge in cases.
Prof Sharon Peacock, of the University of Cambridge and director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, said: “Once a new variant emerges and it is fitter than previous variants it can be difficult to stop it going into a country unless you have very stringent lockdown rules.”
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, agreed it was “probably right that it’s a case of buying time because of past experience”.
But he added that, because Omicron has been identified at a far earlier stage than the now-dominant Delta variant, that “there might be some hope for some amount of containment or that time-buying phase to be longer”.
Prof Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s clinical operational research unit and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts, said delaying the import of Omicron to the UK would beneficial.
“If we can keep it out until after the Christmas break then we’ve bypassed a massive mixing opportunity,” she said. “I think we do need to do something to get transmission down now and ramp up our testing and contact tracing abilities. When Delta arrived in the UK, we were in lockdown. So it spread but it was harder for it to spread.
“Now, if [Omicron] comes here and it spreads through a few people then there’s nothing to stop it carrying on … So that’s why if we start putting in things like mask wearing and working from home now you’re in a situation where it’s not going to stop it, but it’ll slow it down. We’re boosting about 2.5 million people a week, so delaying even a few weeks really does help.”
The Belgian health minister urged people not to panic. Frank Vandenbroucke, speaking at a press conference to announce new Covid restrictions including the closure of nightclubs, said: “I want to repeat that it is a suspect variant. We do not know if it is very dangerous. So: absolute precaution, but no panic pending further scientific analysis.”
Labour on Friday said ministers needed to act quickly to “get a grip” of the issues before Omicron has a chance to take hold. The party said No 10 should bring forward eligibility for boosters to five months after their last vaccine to “ensure continuous protection and mitigate against waning immunity”.
Labour also demanded “immediate clarity” on when those under 40 will be eligible for the booster and any rollout of the Covid vaccine to children under the age of 12, as well as a robust plan to ensure all hospitals have an adequate supply of antiviral drugs to treat patients.
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, is currently isolating with Covid, and high levels of the virus appear to be circulating in Westminster, with MPs saying a number of colleagues are currently absent. Ashworth’s deputy Alex Norris, a shadow health minister, said: “This new variant is a wake-up call. The pandemic is not over. We need to urgently bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay. We must not lose the gains we have made through vaccine rollout. Ministers must grip this fast.”