The first ministers of Scotland and Wales today urged on prime minister 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.
Across the UK all contacts of people infected with Omicron must also isolate for ten days regardless of whether they are vaccinated. But it is feared this will lead to another 'pingdemic' in schools, where most Covid infections are detected.
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.
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;
Ministers were urged to slash the cost of PCR tests to stop families being priced out of going abroad this Christmas.
Ms 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.
'We hope that a four nations agreement can be reached.'
Ms Sturgeon warned current information on Omicron suggests 'we should treat it seriously and we should continue to act on a precautionary basis at this stage'.
She said: 'While we all hope that the emerging understanding of it will reduce rather than increase our level of concern, there is no doubt that this presents potentially the most challenging development in the course of the pandemic for quite some time.'
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.
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.
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she is asking everyone in Scotland to— Sky News Breaking (@SkyNewsBreak) November 29, 2021
"increase compliance" with COVID rules and to work from home if possible as concern for the new Omicron variant grows
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'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.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.