Omicron variant: Sajid Javid says UK still following Covid ‘Plan A’ as new strain reaches Europe

Fears had been raised that more restrictions would come into place in the UK after the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa

Sajid Javid has said the UK Government is currently still following ‘Plan A’ in its fight against coronavirus, following concern over a new “heavily mutated” strain found in South Africa.

The Health Secretary confirmed in parliament today (26 November) no extra restrictions have been put in place for the UK, although warned that “if we need to go further, we will.”

As of yet no cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the UK.

Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant B.1.1.529, which has been identified in other places including South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

At a glance: 5 key points

What did Sajid Javid say?

Javid was questioned in parliament after concerns were raised over the B.1.1.529 variant, which experts described as “one of the worst” they have seen so far.

Labour MP Rachel Maskell asked that Javid give “clear leadership around ensuring face coverings, social distancing and high hygiene are instituted as well as better ventilation” amid fears over the new strain.

She added: “These measures do make a difference as we have seen throughout the last two years.”

The Health Secretary replied: “The Plan A, the policies that we put in place, they remain the policies that I think we need at this time.

“She won’t be surprised to know we do keep this under review and if we need to go further, we will.”

Plan A is currently in place and includes the vaccine and booster programme. The Government’s Plan B includes the reintroduction of restrictions in England such as mask-wearing.

Mr Javid also said there are “very live” discussions over the prospect of adding further countries to the red list following the emergence of a new variant of the virus which causes Covid-19.

The Health Secretary told MPs: “We are going primarily by where the new variant has been detected at this point, and that’s been confirmed in two countries in southern Africa – South Africa and Botswana.

“We’ve included the four other countries I mentioned earlier in southern Africa as a precaution.”

He added: “We are keeping this under review and there’s very live discussions going on about whether we should and when we might add further countries, and we won’t hesitate to act if we need to do so.”

Is the Omicron variant resistant against vaccines?

Despite the UK’s institance that the vaccine and booster programme will be used to fight against coronavirus, the new strain has caused concern among experts.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation special envoy on Covid-19, admitted that there was a “reasonable worry” about whether the new strain is resistant to existing vaccines.

He said: “It is that which really people are worried about and so it is a reasonable worry, and one that everybody needs to investigate.

“But my colleagues who do all this work in the World Health Organisation tell me it takes some weeks to get the answer.

“So we need to be incredibly careful now to do the right thing but to also recognise that it is going to be some weeks before we can say for certain whether our fears have any basis.”

What is the Omicron variant?

The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa and caused worry among scientists after describing it “one of the worst ones they’ve seen”.

It has not yet been detected in the UK but there are concerns over whether the strain will evade the vaccine or previous Covid-19 infection due to the drastically different mutation compared to the original virus found in Wuhan, China.

Downing Street has urged those who have recently travelled to and from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe to get tested as soon as possible.

Boris Johnson has said that recent travellers should not wait until they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace to get tested.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “Anybody who has arrived from any of these countries in the last 10 days, NHS Test and Trace will be contacting them to ask them to take a PCR test.

“But do not wait to be contacted. People shouldn’t wait to be contacted.

“If you have travelled back from one of the six countries in the past 10 days, they should take a PCR test.”

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