Covid restrictions including travel bans, testing and facemasks will be necessary to fight the 'monstrous' new Omicron variant, the Prime Minister has said.
At a gloomy Downing Street press conference this evening, Boris Johnson announced that all arrivals to the UK must self-isolate until they get a negative Covid test, and all contacts of people infected with the mutation must also stay at home for 10 days.
Flanked by Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Mr Johnson said the Omicron strain 'diverges quite significantly from other configurations of the virus' and warned it will 'reduce the protections of our vaccines over time'.
Four more countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola – will be added to the no-fly list on Sunday. All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned yesterday amid growing international panic about the 'variant of concern', which scientists believe is more transmissible and has an increased risk of reinfection.
Earlier today, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that two cases of the strain were detected in Nottingham and Brentwood in Essex. Both are linked to travel to southern Africa, the suspected origin of the mutation. The infected individuals and all members of their households have been told to enter self-isolation after the UK Health Security Agency confirmed the sequencing.
Speaking to reporters today, the Health Secretary hinted at a return to further restrictions, saying the Government has 'always been very clear that we won't hesitate to take further action if that is what is required'.
Another 39,567 Covid cases and 131 deaths were recorded in the UK today. Department of Health officials posted nearly 40,000 daily infections – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 last Saturday – while the number of people who have died 28 days after testing positive for Covid has also fallen by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week.
The EU, US and Canada all followed Britain's move to impose travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa ahead of the WHO adding the strain, also known as B.1.1.529, to its highest category for concerning variants.
Mr Javid told the Commons on Friday that there are concerns the variant may be more transmissible, make existing vaccines less effective, and it may hinder one of the UK's Covid treatments, Ronapreve.
Britain's first two Omicron infection came as a spate of cases were found across Europe, with at least 61 new cases of Covid entering the Netherlands from South Africa this morning. Authorities are currently sequencing the tests for the new variant.
Europe's first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium yesterday – despite the unvaccinated woman who caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt. Germany and the Czech Republic both confirmed suspected cases today. Germany's initial sequencing suggests a traveller from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Officials are awaiting full sequencing later today. And Australian authorities – who also banned travel to nine countries in the region – fear the variant may have already entered the country.
On another day of coronavirus chaos:The first European case in Belgium was revealed to be an unvaccinated young woman tested positive; The number of patients hospitalised with Covid fell sharply in the UK; An official report concluded that a visit to the theatre or a football match puts you at no more risk of catching Covid than seeing your friends; South African experts suggested there was 'every indication' that vaccines were still effective against the variant; Speculation mounted that the discovery of the strain would lead to vaccine experts approving booster jabs for all adults soon.
Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in the UK, South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers' tests. There are also suspected individual cases being sequenced in Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia
Britain has sequenced two cases of the Omicron variant in Nottingham and Chelmsford, Sajid Javid said today
NOTTINGHAM: One case of Omicron has been found in Nottingham, where infections have been creeping up steadily in recent weeks in line with the national picture
BRENTWOOD: The other case was found in Brentwood, Essex, which has seen a broadly similar trend, recording 67 new cases on Wednesday
South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far. Graph shows: The seven-day average for cases in the country
All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned by Mr Javid yesterday
At least 61 new cases of Covid have entered the Netherlands from South Africa as fears mount over the spread of the new super mutant variant.
Around 600 passengers arrived on two planes in Schipol Airport, near Amsterdam, from Johannesburg — the epicentre for the new strain — hours after travel bans were put in place.
The passengers in the Netherlands have been placed in quarantine hotels while the authorities investigate whether they have been infected with the variant. Some complained at being left on the plane for hours with no snacks or water.
People returning to the Netherlands from outside the EU are required to take to show either a negative PCR tests taken 48 hours before their arrival or a negative lateral flow swab done 24 hours before coming back.
The test results have to include name and contact information of the institute, doctor or laboratory that conducted the test.
Authorities in the country have just announced the early closure of bars, restaurants and some shops due to the record-breaking surge of Covid sweeping through the country.
'We now know that 61 of the results were positive and 531 negative,' the Dutch Health Authority (GGD) said in a statement
'Travellers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol.
'Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named Omicron.'
The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.
Passengers on the two KLM flights, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, said they were kept waiting on the tarmac for hours.
In an announcement this afternoon, Mr Javid said: 'Today I can announce one thing that we are doing immediately is carrying out targeted testing and sequencing of positive cases in the two areas that are affected.
'We know there's this new variant out there. We don't know enough about it yet but from what we do know, the protections that we have – especially the vaccines – are hugely important.
'We will do whatever is necessary to protect the progress we have made as a country.
'We've come a long way since the summer and we keep all of this under review and if we need to take further action, we will.'
Mr Javid said anyone who has travelled in the last 10 days to the 10 countries now on the red list, they must self-isolate and take PCR tests.
England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said: 'We will continue to work closely with the international community to quickly gather and analyse information on this variant to understand any possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.'
It comes as Mr Johnson prepares to implement fresh travel bans on a host of countries, after Britain halted flights to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe yesterday.
Experts warned Britain could face restrictions being reintroduced in the country this Christmas but the Prime Minister hopes travel bans could prevent the need for another lockdown.
Prof Whitty previously said he fears Britons will not accept another national lockdown to fight off the variant over the winter because of 'behavioural fatigue' caused by two years of restrictions.
South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket in the country and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far.
And Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the Oxford scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, today expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the variant.
The US has joined the growing list of countries to close their borders, with Joe Biden saying the pandemic will not end until global vaccinations are in place. New York governor Kathy Hochul yesterday declared a state of emergency as Covid transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020
Officials in Germany today confirmed the first suspected case of Omicron in the country came from someone returning from South Africa.
'The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,' Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse, tweeted, referring to the strain first detected in