A third case of the Omicron coronavirus variant has been discovered in the UK, the Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said on Sunday.
The most recent case, like the other two, is related to travel to southern Africa, where the variant has been identified but the person is no longer in the UK.
However, UKHSA announced that the person was in the Westminster area of central London prior to departure and also warned that it is “very likely” that more cases of the new potentially highly infectious variant will be detected in the coming days are as a result of “focused contact tracing”.
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The UKHSA information came shortly after the UK government announced that face coverings would become mandatory in shops and public transport in England from Tuesday, as part of the stricter Covid-19 curbs being enforced in response to two cases of the new Omicron variant discovered in the country.
Health Minister Sajid Javid said the obligation to conduct mandatory PCR testing, which must be carried out by all overseas immigrants in the UK, is also being enforced “as soon as possible”.
The minister said he expected that any new measures put in place to give scientists more time to analyze Omicron’s infectivity and vaccine resistance will be reversed “within weeks”.
“The reason we set these measures yesterday is to protect the progress we have made so we can all continue to enjoy Christmas with our families,” said Javid, referring to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of the stricter restrictions on Downing Street on Saturday night.
“This is about protecting the advances we’ve made … But it’s important to respond proportionately and temporarily. I hope we can remove this within weeks, ”he said.
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In other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – face covering is already mandatory on public transport and in many indoor spaces. The opposition Labor Party has expressed concern that the new rules do not go far enough to enforce the government’s so-called “Plan B” of working from home and vaccination cards for venues.
“If you were to make such decisions, they would have to be made very, very carefully. We’re not there yet, we’re a long way from there, ”Javid told Sky News.
The new measures have raised fears of another banned Christmas, but both Johnson and Javid have tried to downplay those worries, insisting that the 2021 holidays would be better than 2020.
“People should continue their Christmas plans as usual. I think it’s going to be a great Christmas, ”said Javid.
The variant of Omicron, which is feared that it will spread faster and partially reduce vaccination protection, was identified in South Africa earlier this week and classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). Cases have since been uncovered in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, as well as Europe and the two cases in England.
Both cases in the UK have been linked to travel in southern Africa and targeted tests are planned in the surrounding areas of southern and central England where the variant was discovered.
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“It’s more important than ever that people get their vaccinations and we’re getting these boosters in our arms as soon as possible,” Johnson said on Saturday as he announced a plan for the “booster campaign”.
“We are already planning to do 6 million jabs in England alone in the next three weeks. And now we want to go further, so the Minister of Health has asked the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization) to consider booster vaccination to as large a group as possible and to narrow the gap between your second dose and your booster, ”he said.
“We don’t know exactly how effective our vaccines against Omicron will be, but we have good reason to believe that they offer at least some protection. And if you’re empowered, your response is likely to be stronger, ”he added.
The UK has now banned air travel from 10 countries – Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Also, anyone entering the UK from abroad must now take a PCR test and self-isolate until they get a negative result. And anyone who comes into contact with someone who has tested positive for the Omicron variant must self-isolate for 10 days – even if they are fully vaccinated.
The new variant is considered to be potentially more dangerous because it has about twice as many mutations as the highly transmissible Delta variant, but it could be weeks before scientists fully understand the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against them.
Meanwhile, the UK saw a slight drop in its daily coronavirus infection rate, with 39,567 cases and 131 Covid deaths recorded on Saturday.
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