Two people in the UK have been found to be infected with the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, the health secretary has said. Sajid Javid said the UK Health Security Agency had detected cases in Chelmsford, Essex, and in Nottingham. He said the cases were linked and the two people were self-isolating alongside their households while more tests and contact tracing take place. The new variant has also been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.
The new Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on Wednesday. Mr Javid said the two UK cases were linked to travel to southern Africa.
Countries around the world are currently racing to introduce travel bans and restrictions on southern African countries in an effort to contain Omicron’s spread.
Ten countries are now on the UK’s travel red list meaning, from Sunday at 04:00 GMT, all arrivals will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.
On Friday, the UK placed South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini on the list.
In his announcement on Saturday, the health secretary said Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia would be added to that list.
He also said: “We’ve always been very clear that we won’t hesitate to take further action if that is what is required.
“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.”
He added: “If anyone has travelled to these four countries or any of the other red-listed countries in the last four days then they must self isolate and take PCR tests.”
Mr Javid said the UK vaccine rollout programme was now “even more important”.
“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,” he said.
Asked about potential changes in Covid-19 restrictions, Mr Javid said: “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.”
A “variant of concern” is the World Health Organization’s top category of worrying Covid variants.
The decision adds weight to the mounting scientific worry about the potential of this new variant, but it doesn’t change any of the facts.
The variant has an astounding collection of mutations which are thought to increase its ability to spread and bypass some, but not all, of the protection from vaccines.
However, we still don’t have the clear real-world data.
We don’t know for sure that it spreads faster, makes vaccines or drugs less effective or whether it leads to more severe disease.