The Prime Minister has introduced new restrictions in response to concerns over the new Omicron COVID-19 variant being identified in the UK, because there are fears that it could be more infectious and less responsive to vaccines.
These measures as temporary and have been introduced as a precaution to slow down the spread of the Omicron variant while the government gathers more information.
What is the Omicron COVID-19 variant?
The more a virus spreads, the more chance it has to change, or mutate. Often these changes have little impact, but sometimes they help the virus survive and lead to new variants being identified.
This most recent variant has been named Omicron by the World Health Organization, following the pattern of Greek code-names like the Alpha and Delta variants.
Scientists are particularly concerned about changes to a virus’s spike protein, which is the part that help it enter human cells.
The Omicron variant contains a large number of spike protein mutations as well as other changes, so it is now very different from the original virus that emerged in Wuhan, China. This means that the vaccines, which were designed using the original strain, may not be as effective.
However, some of the changes in this variant have been seen before in others, which gives some insight into their likely role in the virus.
Urgent work is ongoing internationally to fully understand how these mutations may change the behaviour of the virus with regards to vaccines and treatments. Early indications suggest this variant may be more transmissible.
Devon’s director of public health urges extra caution in response to Omicron variant
With temporary measures to prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant coming into force today, the Director of Public Health Devon, Steve Brown, and the Chair of NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, Dr Paul Johnson, are urging people to be extra cautious.
Little is yet known about the new strain, and we will learn more about it in the next few days and weeks as we see the impact that it is having on people’s health.
“This is another reminder that this pandemic is not yet over,” said Steve Brown, Director of Public Health Devon.
“The re-introduction of mandatory face coverings is good news, and we will wait to see what impact it has on case rates locally.
“We need everyone now to be extra careful.”
Dr Paul Johnson, Chair of NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, said:
“We’re still learning about the Omicron variant, but we can be clear that social distancing, regular hand washing and wearing a mask where appropriate can reduce the spread of all strains of Covid-19 as well as of seasonal flu.
“As the temperature drops it’s really important to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and seasonal flu, if you are eligible, in order to protect yourself, your loved ones and the NHS.”
What are the new rules?
Targeted measures to prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant took effect from 4.00am today (Tuesday 30 November 2021).
They are being introduced by the government as a precaution while more information is gathered and assessed on how easily this new variant spreads and any possible effect on vaccines.
The measures are temporary and precautionary, and will be reviewed in three weeks:
- Face coverings are once again compulsory in shops and settings such as banks, post offices and hairdressers, as well as on public transport in England, unless an individual is exempt.
- All contacts of suspected Omicron cases must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their age or vaccination status. They will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace
- Anyone entering the UK must take a PCR test within 48 hours of arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result. The PCR tests are available online from private providers
- Secondary schools pupils in England are being strongly advised to wear face coverings in communal areas. Due to high COVID-19 case rates in the south west, secondary schools across the region have been following this guidance since half term. The guidance applies to staff and visitors at all schools and childcare settings
Mask wearing in England is now compulsory in some settings
They include shops and supermarkets, shopping centres, post offices, banks, pharmacies, and public transport. It also includes takeaways that don’t have space for people to eat or drink on premises. And it includes in cars or small vans during a professionally delivered driving lesson or driving test.
Why do we have to use face coverings again?
When someone with COVID-19 breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes, they release particles into the air that may contain coronavirus, and these particles can be breathed in by other people.
By covering your nose and mouth with a face covering, you will reduce the spread of droplets by limiting the amount released when you talk and breathe. It helps to protect others.
Face coverings can also help reduce virus spread from contagious people with no symptoms.
If you are not able to wear a face covering
Some people will be exempt from wearing face coverings, due to their health or circumstance, and some will carry an exemption card by choice.
The government does not provide physical exemption cards or badges, but you can download one from their website to save to your mobile phone or print off.
What about schools?
The Department for Education (DfE) has updated their guidance for schools and childcare settings to reflect new measures announced by the Prime Minister in response to the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
The new measures will be introduced as a precaution to slow down the spread of the new Omicron variant while the government gathers more information. The measures include:
- Face coverings should be worn in communal areas in all settings by staff, visitors and students in year seven and above, unless they are exempt
- Pupils in year seven or above should continue to wear face coverings on public and dedicated school transport, unless they are exempt
- All educational and childcare settings should continue to encourage staff and students to test twice weekly using lateral flow device (LFD) tests
COVID-19 vaccine programme to be expanded and sped-up in response to Omicron variant
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has urgently reviewed it’s vaccine advice to help increase people’s level of protection against the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Everyone over 18 years old will now be offered a booster vaccination, and a second jab will be offered to children aged 12 to 15 year olds, but please wait until the NHS calls you forward.
The boosters will be offered in descending age groups, with priority given to older people and those most at risk. And because of the changing risk posed by the new variant, the period between the second jab and booster jab will be reduced from six months to three months. The intention is to speed up how quickly people can get their jabs in order to increase levels of protection across the population.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Chair of COVID-19 immunisation at the JCVI, said:
“Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant. This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months.”
The government is working with the NHS on the plans to expand the rollout. In the meantime, if it has been three or four months since your second jab, please wait to be contacted by the NHS before making an appointment or visiting a walk-in vaccination centre for your booster jab. If it’s been five months since your second jab, you are eligible to make an appointment for your booster. And if it’s been six months or more since your second jab, you can book an appointment or walk-in to a vaccination centre to receive your booster straight away.
All contacts of suspected Omicron cases must self-isolate for ten days, regardless of their age or vaccination status
The government’s guidance has been updated to reflect changes to self-isolation requirements for contacts of people who have been identified as a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
These contacts must stay at home and self-isolate for ten days, even if they are fully vaccinated or aged under 18 years and 6 months.
If you are a contact of someone with COVID-19 that has not been identified as a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant, and you are fully vaccinated or aged under 18 years and 6 months old, you are not required to self-isolate.
You may be entitled to a one-off payment of £500 through the NHS Test and Trace Support Payment scheme if you are required to stay at home and self-isolate or you are the parent or guardian of a child who has been told to self-isolate.
International travel to England
The government has confirmed new travel restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
All travellers arriving into the country are now required to take a PCR test on or before day two and self-isolate until they have received a negative test result. These PCR tests can be purchased from private providers. Free NHS tests are not valid for this purpose.
Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola were added to the UK’s travel red list.