The UK’s health minister on Monday told Parliament that the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is now in transmission within the community across regions of England, as he confirmed a total of 336 cases of the mutation first detected in South Africa. According to the latest data, there are now 261 cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336, Sajid Javid said in his statement to the House of Commons.
“This includes cases with no links to international travel. So, we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England," he said. The minister informed Parliament about the addition of Nigeria to the UK’s red list travel ban and pre-departure PCR or lateral flow tests for anyone travelling to the country starting Tuesday.
“We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against COVID-19," he said. Javid also updated the Commons on previously released data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) about recent scientific analysis which suggests that the window of infection may be shorter for Omicron than for the Delta variant.
However, he said that there is no “clear picture" on whether the variant causes more severe disease or how it is impacted by the current vaccines being administered for COVID-19. “And so we can’t say for certain, at this point, whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery," said Javid.
From 4 AM local time on Tuesday, anyone travelling to the UK from a non-red list country, whether vaccinated or not, will have to show proof of a negative PCR or lateral flow test taken no earlier than 48 hours before departing for the UK. Javid said that the new measures, which also include every traveller having a Day 2 PCR test and isolating until getting a negative result, are temporary and will be reviewed next week.
Experts have said there is increasing concern Omicron is spreading more quickly than the Delta variant, currently the predominant variant in the UK. Professor Paul Hunter from the School of Medicine at the University of East Anglia said the early signs show that the Omicron variant “will probably spread quite quickly".
“And probably start outcompeting Delta and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least," he told the BBC.