The first ministers of Scotland and Wales today called on Boris Johnson to extend self-isolation for arrivals from two to eight days — as Scotland confirmed six cases of the Omicron variant including some with no links abroad.
In a Covid briefing this morning, Nicola Sturgeon said Scots should start working from home immediately to curb the spread of the virus in a warning sign that England could soon face more restrictions.
Surge testing will also be deployed in areas north of the border where the super-strain has been detected amid fears it could already be transmitting in the community.
Ms Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have asked for an emergency COBRA meeting to come up with a ‘tougher four nations approach’ to control the spread of the new variant.
They are also pushing the Prime Minister to prepare for the return of the furlough scheme, which finished only two months ago and cost the public purse more than £70billion.
Mr Johnson is due to review England’s Covid rules — which are lighter than those in Scotland and Wales — in three weeks time, which has raised fears that Britons could be stung with last minute curbs just days before Christmas.
Face masks have been compulsory in public places in Scotland and Wales throughout the summer, even after England released all restrictions in July.
But ministers in England made the coverings compulsory again in shops, on public transport and in communal areas in schools — such as corridors — over the weekend. All travellers flying into the UK currently have to isolate for two days at home and need to take a PCR test on day two.
Experts have already called for the policy to be extended to classrooms, pubs and restaurants, with SAGE scientist Professor Sir Mark Walport warning the virus cannot tell the difference between indoor settings.
But in a glimmer of hope health minister Edward Argar said he did not anticipate more Covid restrictions being imposed over the festive period. He said he was ‘looking forward’ to spending Christmas with friends and family.
Scottish health officials announced four infections were spotted in Lanarkshire and two in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area today. Ms Sturgeon said ‘some’ were not linked to travel, suggesting the variant may already be spreading in Scotland.
She warned the Omicron variant was the ‘most challenging development… in quite some time’.
Nine Omicron cases have been confirmed in the UK so far, after three were spotted in England over the weekend. But Government labs are examining another 75 ‘probable’ cases and up to 150 ‘possible’ infections.
Britain’s Covid vaccine advisory panel is expected to extend the booster vaccine programme to all over-18s today to give the country another line of defence against the variant, feared to be more transmissible and vaccine-resistant than Delta.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid will today chair an urgent meeting with G7 health leaders in London to thrash out an international strategy to deal with the strain, which has now been spotted in eight European countries and four continents.
Experts say at least two weeks are needed to understand whether the variant is more likely to cause hospitalisation because this is how long it takes for someone who has caught the virus to develop severe symptoms.
Scottish health officials announced four cases in Lanarkshire and two in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area today (top). The Deputy First Minister warned only ‘some’ were linked to foreign travel, suggesting the variant may already be spreading through the community. It means nine cases have been spotted in the UK so far after three were detected in England. Unlike in Scotland, these were all linked to foreign travel. UK labs are also looking at up to 225 possible infections
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scots should start working from home immediately today and announced surge testing in areas where the mutant strain had been detected. Ms Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford have called for an emergency COBRA meeting to thrash out a ‘tougher four nations approach’ to the Omicron variant
Pictured above are Covid testers in Brentwood, Essex, where one of the Omicron infections was spotted. Health officials there say the case is ‘well’ and self-isolating at home with their family. They say the individual has ‘some’ symptoms but that these are not serious enough to lead to hospitalisation. Contact tracing is ongoing in the area
The Omicron variant has now been detected in 14 countries. It was initially identified in Botswana, South Africa, and Hong Kong before being spotted in Belgium on Friday. Over the weekend several other countries confirmed cases. It has now spread to four continents in the almost three weeks since the first case
B.1.1.529, or the Omicron variant, has some 50 mutations — 30 of which are on its spike protein which the virus uses to invade cells. The current crop of vaccines triggers the body to attack the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But there are fears that the spike on B.1.1.529 may look so different that the body’s immune system will struggle to recognise it and fight it off, leading to an infection
Britain brought back the ‘red list’ last week, which would force arrivals from countries on the list to quarantine for 11 days at their own expense in a Government-backed hotel. The current countries on the list are South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Angola
Dutch police arrest couple who fled Omicron quarantine hotel
Dutch police have arrested a couple who ‘fled’ an Omicron quarantine hotel and boarded a flight out of Holland — as the super-mutant strain spreads to three continents in almost as many weeks.
Local border police said they arrested the pair at Schiphol Airport after they ran from a hotel where Covid positive passengers from South Africa were being quarantined.
‘The arrests took place as the plane was about to take off,’ the Marechaussee police force said on Twitter, adding that the pair had been handed over to the public health authority.
France’s Health Ministry said on Sunday it had detected eight possible cases of the Omicron Covid variant across the country after the government announced it would tighten restrictions to contain its spread.
And two cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, first detected in Southern Africa last week, have been confirmed in Canada, provincial health officials said on Sunday.
Omicron is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid compared to other strains.
‘They are being considered as possibly being contaminated with the Omicron variant having been to southern Africa in the last 14 days,’ the French health Ministry said in a statement.
It said further tests were being carried out to fully confirm it was Omicron, but the people and those they had been in contact with were now in isolation.
France is in the midst of a fifth wave of the virus. It recorded more than 31,600 positive Covid cases on Sunday having seen a sharp rise in the number of patients in intensive care the previous day.
As the ninth case of the Omicron variant was confirmed in Britain:
- The head of the UK Health Security Agency admitted it was ‘very likely’ that further cases of the new strain would emerge;
- Families were told to plan for Christmas ‘as normal’ as ministers rejected calls to bring back more lockdown restrictions;
- Medics in South Africa urged the world not to panic about Omicron despite fears it can spread rapidly and may evade vaccines;
- Police will be given the power to issue fines of between £200 and £6,400 to back up the order for face coverings to be used on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers again from tomorrow;
- Secondary schools, colleges and universities in England were told that pupils, staff and visitors should wear masks in communal areas;
- Ministers were urged to slash the cost of PCR tests to stop families being priced out of going abroad this Christmas.
Speaking at the Scottish Government briefing, Nicola Sturgeon said: ‘As we know from earlier stages of the pandemic, with so many people travelling to Scotland and indeed to Wales via airports in England, anything less than a four nations approach to requirements like this will be ineffective so we hope that a four nations agreement can be reached.’
She said that vaccination remains the ‘most important line of defence’.
Ms Sturgeon said: ‘We will do that as quickly as is possible.’
The First Minister added: ‘Vaccines remain our best line of defence and I want to stress at this point, if and it is still an if, the vaccines do prove to be less effective against this new variant, vaccination will still be hugely important — less effective does not mean ineffective.
‘If anything the new variant makes it more important not less important to get all doses of the vaccine.’
Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney said ‘some’ of the B.1.1.529 cases spotted in the country were not linked to travel to southern Africa.
He told BBC Good Morning Britain: ‘We obviously have some travel history on some of the cases, I don’t have all of that detail available to me at this stage, but on some of the cases we are aware that there is no travel history involved on some of the cases.
‘So what that tells us is that there must be a degree of community transmission of this particular strain of the virus in the absence of direct travel connection for some of the cases in the southern African area.
‘So that obviously opens up further challenges for us in terms of interrupting the spread of this particular strain of the virus and that will be the focus of the contact tracing operation that is under way already.’
English health officials said the individual infected with Omicron in Essex is ‘well’ and self-isolating at home.
They are understood to have ‘some’ symptoms, but none serious enough to lead to hospitalisation.
Primary school pupils and staff in Brentwood are all being tested for Covid today as a ‘precautionary mesaure’ after the school was identified as a contact of the case.
People who visited a KFC in the area are also being asked to test themselves for the virus.
In a rushed Downing Street press conference this weekend ministers tightened Covid restrictions in England.
But the measures stopped short of Plan B which would have brought back work from home guidance and introduced vaccine passports.
Mr Argar said he did not anticipate any more restrictions being imposed before Christmas, adding he was still ‘look forward’ to spending it with family and friends.
Asked if the Government might tighten up the rules even further in the next three weeks, Mr Argar told Sky News: ‘It’s not something I’m anticipating.’
In a round of interviews this morning, he said the new restrictions were ‘proportionate’ and showed ministers were ‘on the front foot’ with slowing the variant’s spread in Britain.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘This virus has a nasty habit of surprising us, we know that.
‘But we’ve also got to keep a sense of proportion and cool, calm heads as we do that scientific work to understand what may or may not be needed in the future.’
On whether the Government should be moving to its Plan B, Mr Argar said: ‘In the current circumstances, we don’t see that that is needed at this point because there is no evidence yet that the vaccine is ineffective against this new variant.’
Scientists say B.1.1.529 has a ‘horrific’ set of 32 mutations that likely make it ultra-transmissible and more vaccine resistant than other variants. But this is yet to be confirmed by lab tests.
Epidemiologist Meaghan Kall at the UK Health Security Agency — which took over from Public Health England — said several hundred cases and at least two weeks were needed to establish whether the variant is more transmissible and more likely to trigger hospitalisation than other strains.
This is because it takes around two weeks for someone who has caught the virus to develop symptoms that are serious enough to lead to hospitalisation. It takes around four weeks for someone to die from the disease.
Most cases of B.1.1.529 in South Africa are in young people and university students, who are less likely to develop serious disease or die if they catch the variant compared to the over-80s.
Between November 11 and November 26, there were 48 direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow. During this period, there were two British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic flight per day
Graphs shown at a Downing Street press conference on Saturday showed the number of people who have been jabbed
Australia delays international border reopening after Omicron variant emergence
Australia will stay closed for another two weeks as plans to allow in thousands of skilled workers, students, and refugees are pushed back due to the Omicron Covid variant.
The federal government’s national security committee decided on Monday to postpone loosening border restrictions from Wednesday until December 15.
Travel bubbles with Japan and Korea that were also due to kick off this week were also delayed until that date.
‘The temporary pause will ensure Australia can gather the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant,’ Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement on Monday.
‘[This includes] the efficacy of the vaccine, the range of illness, including if it may generate more mild symptoms, and the level of transmission.’
Australia’s borders are already closed to international travellers except vaccinated Australians, permanent residents and immediate family, as well as ‘green lane’ travellers from New Zealand and Singapore.
A National Cabinet meeting will be held within the next 48 hours for state and federal leaders gather to discuss the potential health threat.
Australia’s cases of the new super-mutant South African strain grew to five on Monday after two more travellers tested positive in NSW.
The two fully-vaccinated passengers arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Singapore Airlines flight SQ211 on Sunday night and are isolating in special health accommodation.
Everyone else on the flight was deemed a close contact and required to get tested and undergo 14 days isolation.
Britain’s vaccine taskforce — the JCVI — is today expected to announce that booster doses are to be offered to all over-18s. They are currently available for the over-40s.
They could also reduce the gap between second and third dose from six months to five.
Committee member Professor Jeremy Brown said the gap was in place to make sure the top up was effective and went to those who are most at risk from the virus first.
He told Times Radio: ‘So the reason for the gap is to ensure that we target the most susceptible people first for a booster vaccination.
‘The logic for maybe changing the gap… this variant the Omicron variant is now present in the world, it hasn’t reached the UK in high numbers, and if possible it will be good to boost a lot of people’s antibody levels to high levels to give them the maximum chance of not getting infected with this new variant.
‘So that might be a reason for reducing the gap. Between the second dose and the booster dose.
‘And so basically vaccinate people ahead of a possible Omicron wave which will be coming at some point.’
Experts are looking for a ‘goldilocks period’, or the moment when a booster jab triggers the best protection possible against Covid.
Professor Brown added: ‘There are advantages of having a longer gap and there are advantages of a shorter gap, and this is sort of a “Goldilocks period” that we need to try and hit because if we make it too short, then the longer-term benefit of boosting antibodies to higher levels — which occurs when there’s a bigger gap — will be lost.
‘But then (if) we make it too long then we don’t get the boost occurring at the time when the Omicron is not in the country and it’s just about to arrive, so it’s a little tricky.’
He added that the ‘limiting step’ was vaccine delivery, adding: ‘You can’t say “I would like to vaccinate the entire country and the next day it gets done”. It has to be done in a period of time. So there’s a there’s a delivery issue here as well.
‘It’s very important to make sure people are vaccinated are those most at risk.’
Professor Sir Mark Walport, who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advising Government, told Sky News there was ‘good cause to be concerned’ about Omicron.
He said it ‘makes sense to try and hold it back’ though it will be ‘impossible to stop it spreading around the world if it is much more infectious than the Delta variant’.
He said the most important thing people in the UK could do was to have vaccines and take measures such as wearing masks.
Asked if people should be told to wear masks in pubs and restaurants, he said: ‘If you are in a small, poorly ventilated enclosed space, it makes sense to wear a mask. Clearly when you are drinking and eating it’s not possible to do that but if you’re moving around, then absolutely.
‘We know that infection happens in closed spaces indoors and of course, as it gets colder, people are more likely to be indoors and they’re less likely to have the windows open.
‘So if you’re going to wear masks in shops, it makes sense to wear them in other places as well.’
Several countries have imposed travel restrictions following the emergence of the variant — with Israel and Japan being the first to bring in restrictions for all those arriving from abroad.
Russia’s Covid taskforce said today it was also set to announce new restrictions related to the Omicron variant.
Omicron has now been spotted in some 11 countries, with scientists warning it has likely been spreading around the world for some days.
New Covid travel rules face furious backlash from air industry who warn ‘knee-jerk’ decision will leave passengers facing ‘huge hardship’ – as PCR test firms hike prices within hours of announcement
By Mark Duell for MailOnline and David Churchill for the Daily Mail
Travel bosses today warned tougher Covid-19 restrictions on global travel have been ‘completely ineffective in the past’, amid the return of PCR tests from tomorrow.
The travel curbs come just weeks after costly PCR swabs for returning travellers were ditched on October 24 and replaced with much cheaper rapid lateral flow tests.
But there is now a growing backlash after Boris Johnson said all travellers, regardless of vaccination status, will have to take PCR tests by day two of their UK arrival.
Travellers must self-isolate at home until they get their result, although critics have pointed out that they can travel to their quarantine location by public transport.
The rule was announced on Saturday and comes into force at 4am tomorrow in a bid by ministers to better track any spread of the feared new Omicron variant.
The average cost of a single PCR swab among more than 450 providers listed on the Government website today was £83 – up by 5 per cent or £4 from £79 yesterday.
For a family of five this would add £415 to the cost of a trip abroad. By comparison, rapid lateral flow tests are typically about £20 to £25 – adding about £100 to £125.
One furious tourism boss branded it a ‘travel tax’, which contradicted the Prime Minister’s claim that ‘this Christmas will be better than last’.
Travellers accused Covid test companies of ‘shameless profiteering’ with some claiming the PCR price has risen by £10, £30 and £44 in three different examples.
And Willie Walsh, the former boss of British Airways’ parent company IAG, today described the reintroduction of tighter quarantine and testing regulations as a ‘knee-jerk decision’ which imposes ‘huge hardship’ on travellers.
Mr Walsh, who is currently director-general of airline trade body the International Air Transport Association, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I’m very disappointed to see this knee-jerk reaction by governments to the latest development.
Travellers line up at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two this morning
A Covid testing centre sign is seen at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five yesterday
People wait at Heathrow Terminal Five yesterday ahead of the new travel rules coming in
‘It’s clear that these measures have been completely ineffective in the past but impose huge hardship on people who are trying to connect with families and friends, and clearly massive financial damage to the tourism and airline industry.’
What are the new test rules for UK arrivals?
From 4am tomorrow, fully-vaccinated people entering the UK will be required to self-isolate until they receive a negative result from a PCR test taken on the second day after they arrive.
The tests must be bought from the private sector, typically costing around £55.
Previously fully-vaccinated travellers were only required to take a cheaper lateral flow test, and did not need to self-isolate unless they received a positive result.
People who are unvaccinated will continue to need one pre-departure test and two post-arrival PCR tests, and must quarantine for 10 days.
Ten African countries have been added to the UK’s red list since Friday.
Arrivals from those locations must stay in a quarantine hotel for 10 days at a cost of £2,285 for solo travellers.
Mr Walsh said the failure of similar requirements to prevent a second coronavirus wave in the UK after being implemented in May last year demonstrates they ‘do not have any long-term benefits’ and are ‘not the answer’.
He continued: ‘I think sensible testing regimes which have been proven to be effective could be introduced which would enable people to continue travelling in a safe environment.
‘It’s disappointing that the Government does not reflect on the significant data that they have available.’
Ministers have been also told by travel bosses and MPs that the cost of PCR tests should be slashed to stop families being priced out of going abroad this Christmas.
The Government has been urged to either cap prices of the ‘gold standard’ swabs, axe VAT on them or allow holidaymakers to use free NHS ones.
The new travel curbs will increase testing bills by hundreds of pounds.
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy the PC Agency, said: ‘One of the best things the government could do is remove VAT on PCR tests to make it less costly for people to travel.’
Of the new restrictions, he added: ‘It’s the Christmas present nobody wanted in the sector and it wipes out inbound tourism due to the quarantine while awaiting test results.’
Guidance issued by the Government last night said that, if travellers’ test results are delayed, they must stay in self-isolation until they receive them or until two weeks after arrival – whichever is soonest.
Anyone with a positive result must self-isolate at home for ten days. The new rules relate to people who are fully vaccinated.
Non-fully vaccinated travellers must take a pre-return test and two PCR tests on days two and eight while self-isolating at home for ten days.
What are the new rules that will come into force tomorrow?
- Face coverings will be made compulsory on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers – but not in pubs and restaurants.
- All travellers entering the UK from abroad will have to take a PCR test on the second day after their arrival and isolate until they receive a negative result.
- People identified as contacts of suspected Omicron cases will have to isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status.
- Regulations will be laid in Parliament today before they come into force tomorrow. MPs will get a retrospective vote within the next four weeks.
It comes as Switzerland effectively ‘red listed’ Britain by subjecting arrivals to ten days of self-quarantine.
Switzerland’s decision to ‘red list’ the UK means Britons arriving in the country will have to show proof of full vaccination, a negative Covid test and then self-isolate.
The Swiss measures – which came into force at 8pm on Saturday – were also in response to the spread of the Omicron variant.
It threatens to kill off skiing holidays, with the season beginning in Switzerland from mid to late November until late April.
Spain also announced a ban on unvaccinated British tourists after Portugal said it would demand proof of a negative test even for double-jabbed visitors.
Travellers heading back to Britain who have bought rapid tests thinking they would be sufficient now face having to fork out hundreds more pounds for PCR swabs.
The more expensive tests are dubbed the ‘gold standard’ because they are processed in labs and can be sequenced to detect Covid variants of concern.
But the average cost of a single swab among more than 450 providers listed on the Government website yesterday was £79. For a family of five this would add £395 to the cost of a trip abroad.
The destination country may also require a test as a condition of entry. By comparison, rapid lateral flow tests are typically about £20 to £25.
The Government will not review the PCR requirement for three weeks, sparking fears the policy will dampen demand in the run-up to the crucial Christmas period, traditionally the second-busiest for the already hard-hit travel industry.
Common travel area is exempt from new Covid-19 restrictions
The exemption of the common travel area from new Covid-19 restrictions against the Omicron variant has been welcomed.
New tougher measures including PCR testing will be introduced for arrivals to the UK from tomorrow morning.
All contacts with a suspected case of Omicron will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status, amid concerns existing jabs will be less effective against the strain that is believed to spread rapidly.
However, this will not apply to the common travel area (CTA), which covers Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Channel Islands.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the move and clarified that travellers from Ireland to the UK will not be affected by the measures against the new Covid-19 variant. On Saturday the Irish Department of Health announced its own measures to mitigate against Omicron, including mandatory home quarantine regardless of vaccine status.
It predicts bookings will cool off and that families worried about struggling to afford tests may be forced to re-book.
Tory MP Henry Smith, chairman of the cross-party Future of Aviation Group of MPs, told the Mail: ‘The price of PCR tests should be capped at no more than a rapid test.
‘Early signs suggest Omicron isn’t more severe as previous strains so I hope the PCR tests reintroduced for international arrivals can be removed at the three-week review.
‘That will be crucial for the travel and aviation sector’s continued recovery, particularly the important Christmas season.’
Ben Bradshaw MP, who sits on the Commons transport committee, said: ‘There should definitely be a cap, as other European countries have.
‘This will kill off demand, which was already much lower than the rest of Europe, particularly given the quarantine requirement while waiting for your PCR result.’
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, said: ‘What I’m failing to understand is why the government doesn’t let travellers use the free NHS PCR tests for the initial three-week period, because private providers are an absolute free-for-all, people will just be ripped off and they don’t always get their results back in time, extending their quarantine.’
The World Tourism Organisation, the United Nations’ tourism body, has warned that global revenue from international tourism this year will be less than half the pre-pandemic level of 2019.
Abta, a trade association for tour operators and travel agents in the UK, said the added cost of testing for all arrivals to the UK will have an impact on customer demand for holidays, adding pressure to an industry which has been among the ‘hardest hit’ during the pandemic.
‘While Abta understands that this is a rapidly evolving situation and public health must come first, the decision to require all arrivals to take a PCR test and self-isolate until a negative result is returned is a huge blow for travel businesses, many of whom were only just starting to get back on their feet after 20 months of severe restrictions,’ an Abta spokesman said.
‘These changes will add cost to people’s holidays, which will undoubtedly impact consumer demand and hold back the industry’s recovery, so it’s vital that this decision is kept under careful review and restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.
‘The Government must also now consider offering tailored support for travel businesses, which have been amongst the hardest hit during the pandemic.’
A spokesman for the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation (LTIO), the trade body for Covid testing companies, said: ‘The LTIO believes reintroducing PCR testing for international travel is a sensible and precautionary step.
‘Our member companies are already working hard to enable passengers who have a booked antigen tests to be able to switch to PCR tests. We also want to offer our laboratories to help rapidly identify any new cases of the Omicron variant.’
MailOnline has also contacted the LTIO for reaction on accusations that test companies have been hiking prices in light of the recent PCR announcement.