Health chiefs last night warned against another lockdown at Christmas amid fears Britons would reject tougher curbs.
Experts insisted there was ‘no plausible scenario’ the Covid super-variant Omicron will take the UK back to ‘square one’, as they called for ‘calm heads’, despite the halting of flights from southern Africa.
Chief medical officer Chrisf Whitty said alarmist warnings were simply ‘speculation’ because the variant had spread only in ‘very small numbers’. He also questioned whether the public would accept the return of coronavirus restrictions.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs that, while there was ‘huge international concern’, vaccines had put Britain in a strong position.
Scientists said existing jabs could be tweaked to tackle the variant. And a World Health Organisation representative said that resorting to ‘Plan B’ measures so quickly, such as working from home or vaccine passports, would be an over-reaction.
Originally known as the ‘Botswana’ variant, the strain was last night named ‘Omicron’ by the WHO and officially designated a ‘variant of concern’.
Its discovery earlier this week was so significant because it has around 30 mutations, including some linked to an increased risk of transmission. One expert described it as the ‘worst’ variant so far.
In a rush to limit the spread, the EU suspended all flights to southern Africa after the first case was confirmed in Europe. Britain had already put six nations on the travel ‘red list’ – and was poised to add two more last night.
A government adviser suggested that the public should be ‘ready for the possibility’ of a return to Covid restrictions. But a senior government source told the Mail: ‘People should not panic.’
In other developments last night:
- The first European case was confirmed in Belgium after an unvaccinated young woman tested positive;
- The number of patients hospitalised with Covid fell sharply;
- An official report concluded that a visit to the theatre or a football match puts you at no more risk of catching Covid than seeing your friends;
- South African experts suggested there was ‘every indication’ that vaccines were still effective against the variant;
- Speculation mounted that the discovery of the strain would lead to vaccine experts approving booster jabs for all adults soon;
- Another 50,091 virus cases and 160 deaths were reported
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant.
The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
Addressing a conference yesterday, Professor Whitty said: ‘The situation that we’ve got as a result of vaccines – and particularly in older citizens and people with higher risk conditions because of boosters – is a very different one to what we entered the year with.
‘And leaving aside the new variant – which there is speculation about at the moment – the outlook… is actually reasonably manageable.’
Professor Francois Balloux, director of the genetics institute at University College London, advised ministers and the NHS to focus on increasing vaccine uptake before the variant arrived.
‘Scientists and politicians should try to keep a cool head and I can see no benefit in the public being alarmed,’ he said.
The Government placed South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia on the red list on Thursday night.
The mutant strain, which has also been found in Hong Kong and Israel, has twice as many ‘relevant’ variations as the Delta variant, which accounts for most infections worldwide.
Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, yesterday said early signs suggested it was the ‘most worrying’ seen so far. But it is likely to be several weeks before researchers have enough information to determine whether the new strain is more transmissible or can evade vaccines.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairman of the South African Medical Association, said doctors were aware only of mild cases of illness caused by the new variant, adding: ‘I’m not sure why we are all up in arms.’
Dr Raghib Ali, a senior clinical research associate at the University of Cambridge, suggested panic would not help those with fragile mental health and there was ‘no plausible scenario that this variant is going to take us back to square one’.
Dr David Nabarro, a WHO special envoy on Covid-19, said vaccine evasion was a ‘reasonable worry’. But speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World At One, he added: ‘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.’
Wendy Barclay, a professor of virology at Imperial College London, said that – even if the variant evaded antibodies – vaccines would still provide some immunity via T-cells.
Last night the United States said it would restrict entry to travellers from eight southern African countries over concerns about the variant.
The policy does not ban flights or apply to US citizens or permanent residents.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had earlier called for an EU-wide travel ban to southern Africa warning that the Omicron strain could be world-dominant in months.
Passengers flying to the Netherlands from South Africa were banned from getting off the plane as the continent tightened its borders in an attempt to shut out the strain which scientists have described as the ‘worst variant ever’. They were eventually let off the runway after being forced to take a test and leave their details with contact tracers.
By contrast, British arrivals from the variant’s epicentre Johannesburg were left to mingle with hundreds of others as they flew into Heathrow on the last flights out of Africa before the red list was re-imposed at noon. Passengers flying into Heathrow revealed they were not tested or questioned about their travel history.
But there was a fresh push to encourage Brits to get jabbed from vaccines minister Maggie Throup in order to help avoid restrictions at Christmas.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? programme that the WHO recognising it as a variant of concern ‘makes it even more serious’.
‘At the moment we don’t know if it will evade the vaccines that we’ve all been having and if it will be more infectious than the current variant,’ she added.
‘When it comes to Christmas my message is that the best way we can have that Christmas this year that we didn’t have last year… is to get vaccinated.’
She urged hesitant people to get their first vaccine and others who are eligible to come forward for their boosters.
A flight from South Africa to the Netherlands was barred entry into the country today. Passengers are pictured above waiting in their seats
Pictured above is the cockpit shown on screens on the flight (right), and seats on the plane. The Netherlands suspended entry to flights coming from South Africa at noon today
AstraZeneca jab could be tweaked if it comes to worst
A British vaccine that could provide strong protection against the new super-mutant Covid strain is already in the final trial stages, it was revealed last night.
Test results on the formula, developed by the team behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, are due in the next few days. Should it prove effective, it could be ready for use within a matter of weeks.
The news was delivered by immunologist Professor Sir John Bell, a member of the Government’s vaccine task force, who also revealed it was too late to stop ‘the monster’ variant currently ripping through Southern Africa from reaching our shores.
Despite the Government’s travel ban, Sir John said it was only ‘a matter of time’ before it surfaced here.
When that happened, he added, it could be necessary to use modified forms of vaccine if the ones currently being used prove ineffective.
However, the good news was that Britain was already well placed to make the switch quickly thanks to the pioneering work of the award-winning Oxford/AstraZeneca team.
The latest AZ formula was originally created to fight the first South African variant of Covid, which threatened to spread widely last year before being overtaken by the Delta strain. If needed, it could be ‘plugged in’ to modify the currently-used AZ vaccine with relative ease and be administered through booster shots.
Sir John and his Oxford University colleagues have been closely monitoring the new variant, B11529, which has some 30 mutations, since its surge began a few days ago.
But a more detailed analysis will get under way early next week using samples of the virus flown to Britain from South Africa in secure canisters.
Scientists hope to learn more about it such as its ability to spread and its capacity to cause serious illness.
Though it has already infected many South Africans and appears to transmit with worrying rapidity, the early signs are that it may be less dangerous than other strains, Sir John said.
‘The big question is, are people getting really sick? Are the hospitals full? The answer to that is “No”. Some of my colleagues have called [the new variant] a monster. There’s a lot of panic.
‘We should just stay calm. We need to behave as if this thing is going to create breakthrough infections. If it doesn’t, then fine. If it does, we need to be ready.’
Vaccines adviser Professor Adam Finn earlier raised the prospect of lockdown curbs being reintroduced, warning that people must be braced for a ‘change in restrictions’ if the variant spreads to the UK.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK’s Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), warned it was ‘possible’ the strain had already entered Britain. She said people ‘are arriving every day’ to the UK from countries where the strain had been spotted.
Some 10,000 people are thought to have arrived from South Africa alone in the last two weeks where the most cases of the mutant strain have been found. Mr Javid insisted no cases of the strain have been confirmed in the UK but warned the Government is working quickly but with a ‘high degree of uncertainty’ and boosters could not be more important now.
Top experts said that if the strain spreads faster and can avoid current jabs it ‘will get here’. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested that the aim of the travel restrictions is to ‘slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country’.
The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta — suggesting it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible than any version before it. It has caused an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa.
In response, Mr Javid announced last night that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.
Israel was the first country to follow suit, also red-listing the six nations after a first case was detected in the country today. The European Commission has recommended an ’emergency brake’ on travel from countries in Southern Africa.
Speaking in the House of Commons this morning, Mr Javid said it ‘is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries’.
He said: ‘We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health.
‘The variant has an unusual large number of mutations. It’s the only variant with this designation, making it higher priority than Beta.
‘It shares many of the features of the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants.
‘Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it.
‘It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve.’
The Health Secretary added the Government is continuing to assess its travel restrictions with countries with strong links to South Africa and urged the public to book their booster doses as soon as possible.
He said: ‘We are continuing to make assessments, including about those countries with strong travel links to South Africa and we’re working with our international partners — including South Africa and the European Union — to ensure an aligned response.
‘But this variant is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over.
The above slide shows the proportion of tests that picked up a SGTF mutation, a hallmark of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading rapidly in the country. The slide was presented at a briefing today run by the South African Government
The above slide shows variants that have been detected by province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests B.1.1.529 is focused in Gauteng province. This was presented at a briefing today from the South African Government
The above shows the test positivity rate — the proportion of tests that picked up the virus — across Gauteng province. It reveals that there is an uptick of cases in the northern part of the province. It is not clear whether this could be driven by B.1.1.529
It came as Britain’s daily Covid cases breached 50,000 today for the first time in a month and deaths crept up by 2 per cent in a week – but hospital admissions were down 12 per cent.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, following the detection of the new variant.
Those countries are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi, the White House said on Friday.
‘The policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution,’ a senior administration official said, after news of the variant caused the Dow futures to fall by 2.25 percent, and both the NASDAQ and S&P Futures Indices to fall by more than 1 percent.
The price of Brent Crude, the market of the global price of oil, fell by six percent.
Backlash over new travel ban: Health chiefs and tourism bosses say it’s overreaction to latest strain
There was no warning, I’m furious
A woman who flew to South Africa to attend her nephew’s funeral has criticised the Government for not giving British nationals any notice over the travel ban.
Gill Dixon, 52, suffered the bereavement a fortnight ago after visiting her relative in the ICU in the coastal city of George.
But her plans to fly back on Monday evening to return to work have been thrown into turmoil following yesterday’s announcement.
Mrs Dixon, pictured right, said: ‘I cannot believe the UK Government has pulled something like this on Britons in South Africa.
‘I woke up this morning to find out about the news, that they’ve cancelled all the flights back home.’ Mrs Dixon said the treatment of British nationals is nothing short of a disgrace.
‘There was no warning from the Government,’ she added. ‘They should help repatriate British nationals. I’m absolutely furious.’
Even if she can return to her native Kent, the extortionate cost of a quarantine hotel only adds to her anguish. She said: ‘There is no reason why I even have to be in quarantine when I come back. I’ll have tested negative, and I live on my own. To add to this, they have pushed up the price of quarantine.’
Mrs Dixon added: ‘It’s time to consider flying to the US or Europe and staying there for ten days before returning to the UK.’
Ministers are poised to add more countries to the travel ‘red list’ as the threat to foreign winter holidays from the new ‘Botswana’ Covid variant grows.
Officials were considering whether to add Malawi and Mozambique to the ‘no-go’ list as soon as this weekend – amid criticism from blacklisted countries, the UN and travel bosses that Britain has overreacted.
South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) and Lesotho were added on Thursday night over growing fears about the variant. It came as the first European case of the ultra-infectious and potentially vaccine-busting new strain was confirmed in Belgium, leading to concerns of travel restrictions to countries outside Africa.
The Government’s move on Thursday night triggered a scramble among the up to 20,000 or so Britons who are in South Africa for leisure travel to return before 4am tomorrow. Anyone arriving back after this will be forced to quarantine in hotels for 11 nights at a cost of £2,285 per adult.
Ministers defended the move yesterday, saying it was a necessary ‘safety-first approach’ which would ‘buy time’ by stemming the import and spread of the variant.
But South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor hit out at the move, saying it ‘seems to have been rushed’. She added: ‘Our immediate concern is the damage this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.’
Officials at the World Health Organisation studying the new strain, officially named yesterday as the Omicron variant, suggested the border curbs were an overreaction.
‘At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,’ spokesman Christian Lindmeier said during a briefing at the UN agency’s headquarters in Geneva. He said it would be several weeks before scientists knew how much less effective vaccines are against the variant.
Travel bosses also reacted with anger. Paul Charles, chief of the PC Agency luxury travel consultancy, said: ‘It’s a complete overreaction. There’s no evidence at the moment that this variant has any impact on the vaccines.
I’m supposed to start a job on Monday
Stephanie Cramer is stranded in Cape Town by the new variant after flying over to visit her sick father.
She received a text from Virgin late on Thursday telling her that her flight back home to London had been cancelled.
Miss Cramer, 55, pictured, said she was incredibly stressed by the situation as she is starting a new job on Monday.
‘There are no flight options,’ she said. ‘I’m desperate and I’ve run out of ideas.
‘This is beyond a nightmare. I came to see my dad who is ill in hospital and was here for just seven days. Now I have no idea when I will get home.’ Miss Cramer, a former enrolment officer for a training company in London, also made the trip to South Africa to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary.
One of South Africa’s biggest airline ticketing agencies, Flight Centre, said no flights would be leaving for the UK or Europe until 4am on Sunday at the very earliest.
Arrivals from this time will have to isolate in expensive quarantine hotels in the UK for two weeks. But Miss Cramer said she cannot afford the cost of the hotel. ‘Everywhere I turn it is costing us more money and it is more complicated,’ she added.
‘It will now hit confidence and lead to lots of people being worried about Christmas holidays in South Africa and possibly elsewhere.’
Figures compiled for the Daily Mail by flight data analysts Cirium show 289 flights with 79,299 seats were scheduled to fly between the UK and South Africa next month.
Direct flights into the UK from the six African countries were banned from midday yesterday.
The red list will be reviewed again in two weeks, but Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned it is likely to be expanded in the coming days to include more countries with travel links to South Africa.
He told MPs the new variant potentially poses a ‘substantial risk to public health’. He said it is ‘highly likely’ the variant ‘has now spread to other countries’.
No cases have yet been detected in the UK. Three confirmed cases in Israel were in people who had travelled from Malawi. It has also been detected in Hong Kong.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘It is important to act immediately. That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome… so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is. It is a safety-first approach… it’s about buying time.’
Boris Johnson spoke yesterday with South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. A No 10 spokesman said: ‘They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel.’
The two leaders also ‘agreed to stay in close contact as we deal with the ongoing threat’.
Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands followed the UK’s lead yesterday by restricting travel from South Africa and its neighbouring countries.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union’s top eurocrat, urged all the bloc’s leaders to do so. The US has also restricted flights from eight African countries.
Do not panic. Jabs have worked on every variant — the world IS winning, writes PROFESSOR BRENDAN WREN
When an expert from the UK Health Security Agency warns that a new variant of the Covid virus is ‘the worst we have seen so far’ and another scientist calls it ‘horrific’, you can forgive people for starting to panic all over again.
And, at first glance, there is certainly good reason to pay attention to B.1.1.529 – the new variant identified in southern Africa.
After all, it has 50 mutations compared to the strain that first emerged in Wuhan two years ago, making it very different from the original virus.
And on the part of the pathogen that infects human cells, it has ten mutations, compared to just two for the Delta variant that swept the world this year.
So, by far the most important questions are: is this variant more transmissible, more virulent and are our vaccines less effective against it?
And on these, we are still largely in the dark. That’s why it’s prudent for the time being to try to keep the variant out of this country for as long as possible by stopping flights here from affected nations – though we need to be realistic about any ability to do this in the long term.
But here’s the key point – viruses mutate all the time. And when they do, they don’t always result in more virulent or more worrying strains. Quite the opposite. Over time, pathogens tend to become less deadly because a virus that kills its host quickly spreads less than one that doesn’t.
What about vaccines? There have been worried claims that the variant will somehow be ‘resistant’ to the growing arsenal of jabs – let alone all the other drugs and treatments – that the world’s medical community has developed to fight Covid.
Will these claims prove correct? Again, who knows? But even if our vaccines are less effective against B.1.1.529, that certainly does not mean that we are going back to the world of early 2020.
So far our vaccines have worked against all variants of the virus that have evolved. They were developed based on DNA sequenced from the Wuhan strain and they have served us well.
What’s more, Britain is the world leader on genome sequencing. Currently, UK laboratories sequence more than 50,000 strains of Covid a week, enabling us to have an early warning system for new variants and stay one step ahead of the virus.
This is how we identified the Alpha (or Kent) variant – it probably arose abroad but our modelling here allowed us to spot it before anyone else.
Above all, the world has a raft of companies developing new vaccine technologies. Scientists can easily modify vaccines to meet new variants – within days if necessary.
If we do in fact need a ‘new’ vaccine to fight this latest variant, it will be a case of tweaking an existing one.
The vaccine team at Oxford University – and other scientists around the world – are already looking at the genome sequences of all the virus’s variants, including B.1.1.529.
In the arms race against the virus, humanity is winning – and we are well-prepared. This is not the last time another variant will emerge. In the meantime, it is vital to remember to stay calm and not overreact.
- Brendan Wren is a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.