All international arrivals to the UK will again have to take pre-departure Covid tests in a bid to tackle the Omicron variant, the health secretary has confirmed.
All travellers, regardless of vaccination status, who are visiting England, Scotland and Wales, or returning home after a holiday will be required to take either a pre-departure lateral flow or PCR test under the new restrictions.
The measures, which Sajid Javid insisted are ‘temporary’, will come into force from 4am on December 7 amid concerns about the Omicron variant spreading.
The UK Health Security Agency has now said a further 26 cases of the Omicron variant were reported across the UK, with 25 of these in England, meaning the total number of confirmed cases of the variant in Britain now stands at 160.
It comes just one day after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps rejected calls for pre-departure tests to be introduced, marking more muddled messaging from Government ministers over Omicron measures.
The Government had already introduced a requirement for all UK arrivals to take a PCR test on or before the second day following their arrival in the country. Travellers must self-isolate until they test negative.
But today, Mr Javid confirmed travellers will also have to take pre-departure lateral flow or PCR tests, saying the measures are being brought in due to an ‘increasing number of cases linked to travel’.
In a tweet, the Health Secretary said: ‘In light of the most recent data we are taking further action to slow the incursion of the Omicron variant.’
The introduction of the tests has been described as a ‘devastating blow’ to the travel industry, with aviation officials saying the rapid change in entry requirements has made it ‘impossible’ for the industry to plan ahead.
Nigeria has also been added to the red list for international travel from 4am on December 6, meaning all travellers returning to the UK will be required to quarantine on their arrival in managed accommodation for 10 days.
The measures, which Sajid Javid (pictured) insisted are ‘temporary’, will come into force from 4am on December 7 amid concerns about the Omicron variant spreading
Mr Javid also urged the public to get vaccinated, saying ‘vaccines remain our first line of defence’.
Acknowledging that the new requirements are ‘hugely unfortunate’ for those who already have travel plans, he added: ‘We want to remove them as soon as we possibly can.’
The pre-departure tests will be reviewed along with rules on compulsory masks in shops and on public transport on December 18.
Ministers are expecting a breakthrough in tests of the Omicron variant by the end of this week. Two senior sources told The Mail on Sunday that the time-frame in which the Government’s Porton Down laboratory would be able to assess whether Omicron was a mild variant or posed a serious threat has been cut from an initial ‘four-to-six weeks’.
A Government source said positive news from Porton Down would mean the pre-departure test would be dropped, and added that early clinical evidence on Omicron cases showed a short period between becoming infected and being infectious, which is why testing people before they leave for the UK is aimed to stop importing the variant.
The Scottish Government has also announced that travellers arriving in the country will also be required to take pre-departure Covid tests from 4am on December 7 to help slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
International travellers will have to provide a negative pre-departure test taken two days before travelling, in addition to a negative PCR test on or before day two after arrival, under measures agreed on a four-nation basis.
The Scottish Government said the changes were informed by a UK Health Security Agency risk assessment.
Scotland’s Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said: ‘It is essential we take steps now to keep people safe, protect the rollout of the booster programme and reduce the chances of unsustainable pressure being placed on the NHS over the winter.
‘We have always said it may be necessary to quickly implement fresh measures to protect public health in Scotland, particularly with regards to international travel, and these restrictions are proportionate and necessary to that aim.
‘We fully understand the impact the changes will have on staff and businesses in the travel and aviation sectors, particularly as the new variant came at a time when we were beginning to see some signs of recovery. We will not keep the restrictions in place any longer than is necessary.’
Following announcements from Downing Street and the Scottish Government, Welsh Government spokesperson confirmed it will also introduce pre-departure tests for travellers.
The spokesperson said: ‘In line with the rest of the UK we will be taking action to move Nigeria onto the red list from Monday and to introduce pre-departure tests for travellers into the UK and Wales.’
The requirement for pre-departure tests was greeted with anger and dismay across the travel sector – just as bookings were picking up with the approach of the Christmas break.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said the rapidly changing measures meant planning for travel was becoming impossible.
‘It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data. We don’t have the clinical evidence,’ he said.
‘The red list extension made complete sense – that’s what it’s there for – but we know from experience that blanket restrictions do not stop the importation of variants. It’s already here.
‘They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan. These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.’
And the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association described the introduction of tests as a ‘devastating blow’ to the travel industry, saying it will serve as a ‘major deterrent’ to travel ahead of the Christmas holidays.
She said: ‘Pre-departure tests act as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday.’
Amid the crackdown on travel rules, Nigeria is also being added to the UK’s travel red list from 4am on Monday, joining several southern African nations, the health secretary confirmed.
Yesterday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (pictured) assured travellers that pre-departure tests would not be introduced, marking more muddled messaging from Government ministers
‘Since we have learned of this new variant our strategy has been to buy time. We have always said we will act swiftly should new data require it,’ Mr Javid told broadcasters.
‘Over recent days we have learned of a significant number of growing cases linked to travel with Nigeria.
‘There are 27 cases already in England and that’s growing. Nigeria now is second only to South Africa in terms of linked cases to Omicron.’
Under the new rules, only British and Irish nationals travelling from Nigeria will be allowed into the country and must isolate in a government-managed quarantine hotel.
PRE-DEPARTURE TESTS ARE BRANDED AS ‘DEVASTATING BLOW’ TO TRAVEL INDUSTRY
The introduction of pre-departure Covid for travellers entering England has been branded a ‘devastating blow’ for travel by the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association.
Karen Dee said that the policy, beginning on December 7, will act as a ‘major deterrent’ to travel, particularly ahead of the Christmas holidays.
‘This is a devastating blow for aviation and tourism,’ she said.
‘Pre-departure tests act as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday.
‘Travel and aviation are the only sectors hit with any operating restrictions in response to the Omicron variant. The UK and devolved governments should have done the right thing and, alongside the restrictions, announced support for our businesses and our staff to get through another period of shutdown.’
Meanwhile, the CEO of Airlines UK said the Government’s rapid change in entry requirements has made it ‘impossible’ for the travel industry to plan ahead.
Commenting on the decision to require that travellers to England take pre-departure Covid-19 tests, Tim Alderslade said the decision was ‘premature’.
‘It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data,’ he said.
‘We don’t have the clinical evidence. The red list extension made complete sense – that’s what it’s there for – but we know from experience that blanket restrictions do not stop the importation of variants.
‘It’s already here. They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan. These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.’
The announcement will be seen as evidence of the mounting concern within Whitehall of the threat posed by the Omicron variant.
It comes just one day after the Transport Secretary said ministers do not want to introduce pre-departure tests and unnecessarily ‘kill off the travel sector again’.
He insisted the Government has brought forward a ‘calibrated response’ to the new Omicron super-mutant variant ‘which doesn’t take us right back to the beginning of this’.
On The Telegraph’s Chopper’s Politics podcast, he said: ‘Lots of countries do require if you are going to them for pre-testing. We are not requiring that at the moment.
‘I heard the Leader of the Opposition calling for that from the despatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions this week.
‘Do you want to kill off the travel sector again, without knowing that you need to? Or do you want to take the right level of calibrated response?’
‘And this Government thinks we should take a calibrated response which doesn’t take us right back to the beginning of this.’
But today, he tweeted: ‘As the scientists work to understand new Omicron variant we need to apply additional caution until picture is clearer.
‘We appreciate this will be difficult for the travel sector as we prioritise public health & protect the progress of our world-leading vax & booster programme.’
He also called for further action including increasing the number of booster jabs given to 500,000 per day.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Covid crisis has presented a mixed picture today with deaths falling but cases and hospitalisations continuing to rise, according to Government data.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show 127 people died with the virus today, down 3.1 per cent on last Saturday’s total of 131.
But 42,848 new infections were recorded in the country over the last 24 hours, up 8.3 per cent on the 39,567 recorded last week.
It is the fourth day in a row cases have risen across Britain, with a further 26 cases of the Omicron variant were reported across the UK, meaning the total number of confirmed cases of the variant in Britain now stands at 160.
And the number of people admitted to hospital with the virus also increased 5.6 per cent in a week to 812 on Tuesday, the latest date data is available for.
Another 75 cases of the super-mutant Omicron variant were identified in England yesterday and a further 26 across the UK today, bring the total number of confirmed Omicron infections for the whole of the UK up to 160, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.
Cases of the new variant were identified in the East Midlands, East of England, London, North East, North West, South East, South West and West Midlands.
Scotland’s cases today increased by 16 to 29, while Wales announced yesterday afternoon that its first case had been found in Cardiff. No cases have been found in Northern Ireland.
NHS bosses revealed Britain’s accelerated booster programme to protect against the Omicron Covid variant will not start for another nine days, with pressure mounting on the goal to reach all adults by the end of January.
The Omicron variant has now been discovered in 38 countries but has not yet resulted in any deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)
The UKHSA data showed 372,577 booster doses were dished out across the country yesterday, taking Britain’s total up to 19.8million people — 34.4 per cent of the eligible population.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said that all adults should become eligible for boosters three months after their second dose — bringing down the wait time from six months.
But the booking service for the jabs is yet to be updated and adults who received their jab three months ago could be forced to wait until December 13 to organise their third dose.
Ministers set a target of dishing out 500,000 doses a day to reach its January goal, but if capacity is not ramped up until mid-December this will not be achieved until February 8 at the current pace of the rollout.
Experts are hopeful No10’s ‘booster programme on steroids’ will help prevent Britain’s rising Omicron infections translating into severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths.
Meanwhile, scientists have claimed the Omicron variant may spread more easily than other Covid strains because it shares some genetic material with the common cold virus and is more infectious among children.
A study led by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm Nference, shows the strain contains a genetic sequence common in other viruses including those that cause the common cold, and also in the human genome.
By inserting this particular snippet into itself, Omicron might be making itself look ‘more human,’ which would help it evade attack by the human immune system, said Venky Soundararajan, who led the study posted on Thursday on the website OSF Preprints.
This could mean the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild or asymptomatic disease.
Official data shows that the proportion of positive Covid tests with a mutation synonymous with the highly-evolved strain is on the rise. Like Alpha, or the ‘Kent variant’, Omicron has a specific alteration which means it can be detected through PCR tests without the need for genomic sequencing. The proportion of positive tests in England with this so-called S-gene dropout has risen from 0.1 per cent in the past week to 0.3 per cent, the equivalent of one in 330. Scientists said the increase in S-gene dropouts suggests there could be hundreds of Omicron cases that are flying under the radar currently
Meanwhile, South African officials warned higher hospital admissions among children during the fourth wave of infections in the country should prompt vigilance but not panic, will infections so far being mild.
A large number of infants admitted with Covid last month in Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes the capital Pretoria, raised concerns that the Omicron variant could pose greater risks for young children than other coronavirus variants.
Scientists have yet to confirm any link and have cautioned that other factors could be at play.
Scientists do not yet know whether Omicron is more infectious than other variants, whether it causes more severe disease or whether it will overtake Delta as the most prevalent variant. It may take several weeks to get answers to these questions.
CHILE CONFIRMS FIRST CASE OF OMICRON VARIANT
Chile said on Saturday it had found its first case of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in a traveler who arrived late last month from Ghana.
The traveler had provided proof of a negative PCR test, but an additional mandatory test upon arrival at the airport proved positive, health authorities in the Valparaiso region said in a statement.
They said the passenger, who was not identified, had had two rounds of Pfizer vaccine and appeared in good health. The person has been in isolation since arriving.
Other passengers on the same flight are being retested.
Covid-19 has claimed more than 38,000 lives in Chile to date.
Cells in the lungs and in the gastrointestinal system can harbour SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses simultaneously, according to earlier studies.
Such co-infection sets the scene for viral recombination, a process in which two different viruses in the same host cell interact while making copies of themselves, generating new copies that have some genetic material from both ‘parents.’
This new mutation could have first occurred in a person infected with both pathogens when a version of SARS-CoV-2 picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The same genetic sequence appears many times in one of the coronaviruses that causes colds in people — known as HCoV-229E — and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, Soundararajan said.
South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, has the world’s highest rate of HIV, which weakens the immune system and increases a person’s vulnerability to infections with common-cold viruses and other pathogens.
In that part of the world, there are many people in whom the recombination that added this ubiquitous set of genes to Omicron might have occurred, Soundararajan said.
‘We probably missed many generations of recombinations’ that occurred over time and that led to the emergence of Omicron, Soundararajan added.
More research is needed to confirm the origins of Omicron’s mutations and their effects on function and transmissibility. There are competing hypotheses that the latest variant might have spent some time evolving in an animal host.
In the meantime, Soundararajan said, the new findings underscore the importance of people getting the currently available COVID-19 vaccines.
‘You have to vaccinate to reduce the odds that other people, who are immunocompromised, will encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ Soundararajan said.
Meanwhile, a spate of hospitalisations in children in South Africa has caused concern among experts that the virus may be more infectious in younger people — although cases have been mild so far.
Ntsakisi Maluleke, a public health specialist in the Gauteng province that includes Tshwane and the biggest city Johannesburg, said that out of the 1,511 Covid-positive patients in hospitals in the province 113 were under nine years old, a greater proportion than during previous waves of infection.
Data in South Africa shows the R-rate has soared to over three per cent in recent weeks as Omicron took hold in Gauteng province
‘We are comforted by clinicians’ reports that the children have mild disease,’ she said, adding health officials and scientists were investigating what was driving the increased admissions in younger ages and were hoping to provide more clarity in the coming two weeks.
Since only a small percentage of South Africa’s positive Covid tests are sent for genomic sequencing, officials do not yet know which variants the children admitted to hospital have been infected with.
Despite fears that the new strain is easily spread, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed no one has died with the new super mutant Omicron variant despite the strain being spotted in 38 countries.
The US and Australia became the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant, as Omicron infections pushed South Africa’s total cases past three million.
India confirmed its third Omicron infection today, with cases also now spotted in Sri Lanka, South Korea and Malaysia.
And South Korea reported a record daily 5,352 new Covid infections and 70 deaths, while a nationwide total of nine cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Saturday.
The WHO warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness and how effective treatments and vaccines are against it.
‘We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,’ WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said.
The WHO said yesterday it had still not seen any reports of deaths related to Omicron, but the new variant’s spread has led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s Covid cases in the next few months.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid today met with the World Health Organisation’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, describing it as ‘productive’.
Elsewhere, in a letter from NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard released on Friday, it was revealed the booster booking service would be updated to reflect the reduction of the time between doses to three months ‘as soon as possible and no later than December 13’.
In total 18million Britons have had a booster jab so far and, after yesterday’s guidance change, all 53million adults over 18 will be eligible eventually. At the current rate of 2.4million jabs per week, it would take until March to get everyone boosted
It said the jabs would be delivered ‘in descending age groups, with priority given to the vaccination of older adults and those in a Covid at-risk group first’.
And it confirmed that there were ‘no supply challenges’ with either Moderna or Pfizer booster stocks.
While figures showed Covid infections have increased in all four UK nations and remain close to record levels, though the latest rise is not linked to the arrival of the Omicron variant.
Around one in 60 people in private households in England had Covid in the week to 27 November, up from one in 65 the previous week, according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The proportion of people in England who were estimated to have coronavirus at the peak of the second wave in early January was one in 50.
This led to a surge in hospital admissions and deaths, along with a nationwide lockdown.
However, No 10 ruled out making vaccines compulsory, as has been seen in Austria and is being considered in Germany.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister told reporters: ‘We’ve set out our policy on this and we’ve said it’s not something that we would look to introduce.
‘You’re aware of the changes we made in terms of social care settings and for NHS workers, given the importance of protecting the most vulnerable in our society.
‘But there’s no plans above and beyond that in that regard.’
He added: ‘Our priority is to continue to promote vaccinations and promote boosters now that we are rolling out more and more boosters to more and more people.
‘That is our priority, that’s our focus, and that’s what we’re asking people to come forward and take.’