Face masks will be made mandatory in shops and on public transport in England from Tuesday, the British health secretary said on Sunday, under fresh measures designed to contain the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
Sajid Javid said the government was "nowhere near" imposing stricter rules on homeworking and social distancing after the UK detected its first cases of the variant.
A third confirmed case was identified on Sunday in the UK, and dozens more were being treated as suspected cases, people familiar with the matter said.
The UK Health Security Agency said the third case had tested positive after arriving in the UK and was linked to travel to southern Africa. The agency said the individual had now left the UK but it was “carrying out targeted testing at locations where the positive case visited when they were likely to have been infectious”. The person had been in the Westminster area of central London, it added.
Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, said: “Our advanced sequencing capabilities enable us to find variants and take rapid action to limit onward spread. It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing.”
A number of cases were being investigated in London and a single potential case in Bedfordshire, according to people familiar with the process.
In a development that could suggest the strain was already in the UK before it was officially identified, public health leaders have been briefed that among the cases being investigated is a traveller who arrived back in the UK from South Africa on November 16th.
If the person is confirmed to be infected with Omicron, it would suggest the mutation may have been circulating in the country for significantly longer than previously thought.
Under measures announced over the weekend, everyone entering the UK will be required to take a PCR test within two days of their arrival and must self-isolate until they receive a negative result. The government’s website says the new measures will be introduced from 4am on Tuesday.
Any contact of a suspected case of Omicron must also isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status. The Common Travel Area, of which Ireland is a part, is exempt from the measures.
While scientists continue to assess the new variant, the British government has not yet deployed its Covid-19 plan B, which includes work from home guidance and Covid passports for mass events.
“We know now that those type of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as the impact on mental health,” Mr Javid told Sky News.
“If one was to make decisions like that, it would have to be done very, very carefully. We’re not there yet. We’re nowhere near that.”
Mr Javid confirmed that masks would be made mandatory, but not in pubs and restaurants. All measures will be reviewed within three weeks.
The new UK measures were introduced as the variant continued to spread in Europe and scientists raced to assess the new level of risk.
Prof Chris Whitty, the UK's chief medical adviser, has warned the variant may be able to evade vaccine protection, but said it was likely vaccines would still help prevent severe illness and death.
Mr Javid said he was expecting an update imminently on expanding the availability of booster vaccines for under-40s from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, a body of academics and clinicians who advise the British government on vaccine policy.
‘Far from over’
National Health Service national medical director Prof Stephen Powis said 96 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine had now been given in England, but the emergence of the new variant, Omicron "shows that this pandemic is far from over".
“With Christmas around the corner, getting jabbed is the best shot we have to keep the country going forwards in our collective Covid battle,” he said.
Results of tests to gauge Omicron’s response to vaccines and immune systems were not expected for two to three weeks, scientists and officials said.
The people familiar with the third case said checks were under way to establish whether it was linked to travellers from the 10 countries currently on the England’s red list of countries. Travellers from those countries are required to quarantine in hotels on arrival.
About 40 travellers appeared to show, in preliminary assays, the presence of Omicron, one of the people familiar with the matter said. Tests were being carried out to confirm this finding through genomic sequencing. The travellers were being told to reswab and isolate. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021