U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced further measures to try to contain the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, including PCR tests for passengers arriving in the country, face coverings in shops and more self-isolation.
“We’re not going to stop people travelling,” he stressed during a press conference Saturday. “But we will require anyone who enters the U.K. to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.”
However, “measures at the border can only ever minimize and delay the arrival of a new variant rather than stop it altogether,” he said.
Therefore, close contacts of everyone who tests positive with a suspected case of Omicron will be required to self-isolate for 10 days, “regardless of their vaccination status.” That includes anyone who arrived in the past 10 days from any of the 10 southern African countries newly placed on the U.K.’s travel “red list” who tests possitive.
Regarding facemasks Johnson said: “We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport.”
Pushed to clarify, he added: “We’re going back to a position where you’ll have to wear them” in these settings. A press statement confirmed this will come into effect “from next week.”
The conference came just hours after the U.K. Health Security Agency announced the first two cases of the new variant had been identified in the country in passengers from South Africa. Germany and Italy also announced first cases had been found Saturday among newly arrived travelers.
Omicron, first discovered in South Africa, was designated Friday a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.
Johnson said the new risk made it imperative for people to get fully vaccinated. “We’re going to boost the booster campaign,” he said. The government has asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, “to consider getting boosters to as wide a group as possible, as well as reducing the gap between your second dose and your booster,” he said.
Booster jabs are currently offered to all over 40s.
Asked why the country wasn’t introducing stricter measures, Johnson said this was the right approach to Omicron “given the uncertainties.” He said it was important at this time to prevent the “seeding” of the virus in the country.
The measures will be reviewed in three weeks, Johnson explained.
Scientists are learning more “hour by hour” about the Omicron variant, the prime minister said.
“It does appear that Omicron spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people who are double vaccinated,” he said. Given the extensive mutations in the variant, “it might at least in part, reduce the protection of our vaccines over time,” the prime minister added.
Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance pointed out however, there were “reasons to be much less concerned in the long run,” because the vaccines currently work, and they are “very changeable.”
Vallance also referred to new antiviral drugs coming soon, “so we’ve got a far greater armamentarium than we had months ago, and are certainly in a totally transformed picture compared to a year ago.”
Omicron was first detected in Europe in Belgium on Friday. Dutch authorities on Saturday said that 61 travellers from South Africa tested positive for the coronavirus, and researchers are ascertaining whether it is the Omicron variant. Kai Klose, state minister president for the German state of Hesse, on Friday night tweeted that “several mutations typical of Omicron were found” on a passenger returning from South Africa, but full genetic sequencing is still pending. Other countries are also investigating possible cases.
The European Union on Friday moved to ban travel from seven Southern African countries. The U.S. and several other countries are taking similar steps.
The U.K. is adding Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola to its travel “red list” from early Sunday morning. On Friday, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini were added to the list, bringing a temporary suspension of flights and strict controls on travellers.
Residents from outside the U.K. or Ireland who have been in those countries over the past 10 days will refused entry into England. UK and Irish residents have to isolate in a government-approved facility for 10 days.