The Prime Minister said he was ‘pretty confident to absolutely confident’ that this Christmas would be better than last following the news the nation potentially faces the most dangerous Covid variant yet
Image: NurPhoto/PA Images)
Boris Johnson tonight announced a four-point package to curb the Omicron super-strain as it reaches Britain.
But the Prime Minister came under fire over his low-key response as the nation potentially faces the most dangerous Covid variant so far.
Mr Johnson announced the return of compulsory face masks in shops… BUT NOT in pubs and restaurants.
He said he hoped to roll out booster jabs as widely as possible – WITHOUT suggesting precisely who could be eligible.
There was also NO MENTION of Plan B measures such as working from home, social distancing or the use of Covid passes.
Mr Johnson predicted another six million booster jabs in the next three weeks in England – BUT THAT is the same number as in the previous three weeks.
The PM chuckled: “I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas.”
But Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “The most mutated variant of Covid is in the UK and yet again there is no Plan B from this dithering PM.
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“It’s astonishing that two years into Covid, he still seems to be committing the same mistakes time and time again.”
And expert Professor Christina Pagel of University College London warned: “We could well get blown up by this new variant.”
The mutant is thought be more contagious than the Delta version now triggering up to 50,000 infections a day in the UK.
Scientists worry Omicron could blunt the potency of vaccines – potentially putting the NHS under more strain. The new virus has a worrying 50 mutations, 30 of them in the virus’s spikes – the grappling hooks which Covid uses to attach to human cells.
Scientists fear its catalogue of mutations make it far more transmissible and make vaccines less effective. Labour’s Mr Madders added: “We know that we need to go hard on Omicron but what we got in that press conference was vague and uncertain.
“We are miles off seeing the level of booster jabs needed to maximise protection for as many as possible.”
He added: “His decision to stop mandatory face coverings should never have been dropped.
“During this pandemic we have seen a repeated pattern from the Tories of complacency – they must get a grip immediately.
“We absolutely do not want another Christmas ruined for families because the Government did not act soon enough or hard enough.”
The UK’s first two cases of Omicron were yesterday located in Brentwood and Nottingham. They both involve travel to South Africa and are linked. Both individuals and members of their households are self-isolating, the UK Health Security Agency said.
Under Mr Johnson’ new restrictions, all arrivals in the UK must take a Covid PCR test and self-isolate until they have a negative result. And close contacts of people who test positive for Omicron must self-isolate for 10 days, whether vaccinated or not.
The Prime Minister warned: “It does appear that Omicron spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people who are double-vaccinated.
“There is also a very extensive mutation which means it diverges quite significantly from previous configurations of the virus. As a result, it might at least in part reduce the protection of our vaccines over time.
“So we need to take targeted and proportionate measures now as a precaution while we find out more.”
After the PM’s press conference, the Government’s website confirmed: “Face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport from next week. All hospitality settings will be exempt.
“Six million booster jabs will be available in England alone over the next three weeks, and the Health Secretary has today asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to consider rapidly extending boosters, as well as reducing the gap between the second doses and booster.”
Booster jabs are only currently approved in Britain for over 40s and those with underlying conditions.
The Health Secretary is anxious to roll out third jabs to all adults as other countries including Ireland and France have from the cautious JCVI advisers.
Early findings in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, suggest jabs still give vital protection.
Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said the Government needed to learn from its slow reaction to the Delta variant.
He added: ”We cannot afford to fail again.”
Omicron, known officially as B.1.1.529, was first discovered in Botswana on November 11. It has since been detected in Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. Germany, Australia and the Czech Republic also announced suspected cases yesterday, 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 first detected.
Although vaccines can now be tweaked in a matter of weeks to fight variants it would take months to get jabs into arms.
While experts grapple with assessing dangers from Omicron, the Delta variant is rampaging across Europe with Austria, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland suffering higher infection rates than the UK.
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 to nine.
Omicron’s arrival comes as thousands of Test and Trace workers face being sacked next week.
The UK Health Security Agency instead plans to tell close contacts of Covid positive cases to self-isolate through emails and text messages.
Follow-up calls to check people are abiding by the rules will also end.
The UK averaged 42,000 new cases per day last week and 127 daily deaths.