Mandatory face coverings will be reimposed in shops and on public transport, along with compulsory 10-day self-isolation for those who come into contact with positive cases of the new Covid-19 variant, the Prime Minister announced on Saturday night.
As the first two UK cases of omicron were confirmed in Essex and Nottinghamshire, Boris Johnson warned that “we need to slow down the seeding of this variant” to “buy time” for scientists to establish whether it evades existing Covid-19 vaccines.
However, the return of mandatory 10-day self-isolation will raise fears of another “pingdemic”, in which many Britons are unable to leave their homes having come into contact with someone who tests positive for the new variant.
While twice insisting that “we are not going to stop people travelling”, Mr Johnson announced that all passengers arriving from abroad will now have to take a PCR test by the end of their second day after reaching the country and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
Flanked by Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, Mr Johnson also piled pressure on scientists on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to urgently consider rolling out booster jabs to all adults, as well as reducing the waiting period between second and third doses.
He said: “From today we’re going to boost the booster campaign.”
Prof Whitty revealed that the JCVI was “taking into account the fact this really changes the risk-benefit calculations for several of the decisions which they still have to take” and will “reassess the decisions they have taken”.
Extending the rollout to all over-18s is the “most urgent decision they will have to take”, followed by the potential for a second dose for children aged 12 to 15, and for inoculating under-12s.
The Prime Minister addressed the country in a press conference held at Downing Street on Saturday night after two people in Brentwood and Nottingham were found to have tested positive for the new variant.
Officials were carrying out mass testing on Saturday night in affected areas to identify further cases, raising the prospect that many people could be asked to self-isolate soon after Mr Johnson’s new rules are imposed.
Genome sequencing was being carried out on positive cases to identify instances of omicron.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, was due to announce further details of the new rules on Sunday, including setting out when they will come into effect.
The two individuals who tested positive for the new variant were instructed to self isolate, along with all members of their households, while contact tracers tracked others they may have infected.
Officials said the two cases were connected and that there was “a link to travel to Southern Africa”.
Four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – were also being added to the travel red list from 4am on Sunday, preventing further flights to and from the UK.
Germany followed Britain on Saturday night in announcing two confirmed cases of the new variant in travellers who had visited South Africa, and another suspected case.
Italy also confirmed its first case of the new variant in Milan.
On Saturday it emerged that 61 passengers who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa, where the variant was discovered, had tested positive for Covid-19. Dutch authorities were scrambling to confirm whether any of the passengers had the omicron variant.
On Saturday night, Switzerland placed the UK on its “risk country” list, throwing ski holiday plans into chaos. Officials said all UK arrivals must present a negative test result and quarantine for 10 days.
Spain also announced that all arrivals from the UK would be required to show proof of vaccination, with only children under 12 exempt.
Shutters are coming down across the world as omicron, which is potentially more contagious and resistant to vaccinations, prompts fears of a major setback in the effort to end the pandemic.
Israel, which has one confirmed case, banned entry to all foreign tourists and blocked Israelis from travelling to countries on its red list.
Mr Johnson said: “It does appear that omicron spreads very rapidly, and can be spread between people who are double vaccinated.
“There is also a very extensive mutation which means it diverges quite significantly from previous configurations of the virus, and as result, it might – at least in part – reduce the protection of our vaccines over time.
“So we need to take targeted and proportionate measures now as a precaution while we find out more.”
Prof Whitty warned: “There is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant.”
Face coverings will become mandatory in shops and on public transport once again, after a previous legal requirement was lifted in July, as part of a wider easing of Covid-19 restrictions. Hospitality settings such as bars, pubs and restaurants will be exempt from the rule.
Separately, Mr Johnson said that everyone deemed to be a “contact” of someone who has tested positive for the omicron variant will be told to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. Since August 16, amid a summer easing of Covid-19 restrictions, fully vaccinated people have not had to self-isolate if a contact tests positive for the virus.
All travellers arriving from abroad will have to self-isolate until they receive a negative result from a PCR test, which they will be required to take on the second day after entering the country.
Sajid Javid to lay out regulations before Parliament
Mr Javid is expected to lay out regulations before Parliament to impose the restrictions. The new measures will initially last for three weeks, after which they will be reviewed.
Mr Johnson will likely face resistance from some Conservative backbenchers to any new legal restrictions. Many will fear that even more draconian rules could follow.
However, Sir Patrick said: “The thing that we need to do is always think in the face of this virus, go earlier than you think you want to, harder than you think you want to and more geographically broad than you think you want to.”
Asked whether a nationwide lockdown could be ruled out, Sir Patrick said: “If it’s very transmissible and obviously does cause big escape, then clearly that’s a major issue to face up to, but that isn’t what we know at the moment.”
Mr Johnson urged those already eligible for the third jab to get their booster.
Suggesting that the new suite of measures could help to ensure that Britain avoids the need for further restrictions over Christmas, he said: “As we go forward to Christmas, we are in a strong position but the objective of what we’re doing tonight is to keep that position strong.”
Currently, only those aged 40 and older are eligible for a booster vaccine and ministers have been anxious to see the rollout extended to under-40s as soon as possible.
Mr Johnson said that Mr Javid had asked the JCVI to “consider giving boosters to as wide a group as possible, as well as reducing the gap between your second dose and your booster”.
The Prime Minister heaped public pressure on the JCVI on Saturday night, stating: “They are an independent body but, clearly, we hope that we’ll get some answers for everybody as soon as possible.”
Mr Johnson said that six million jabs would be given to patients in England alone over the next three weeks.
The Czech Republic also identified its first suspected case of omicron in a woman who recently travelled to Namibia. The virus has also been found in Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong and Botswana.