New rules designed to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus will see travellers having to take a pre-departure test before travelling to England from Tuesday
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The UK faces more Omicron cases than some red countries’ with new travel rules deemed ‘pointless, according to one expert.
New rules designed to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus will see travellers having to take a pre-departure test before travelling to England from Tuesday.
All travellers will be required to take a Covid-19 pre-departure test, amid warnings that the time between infection and infectiousness could be shorter with the new strain.
It comes as Professor Tim Spector, from the Covid Zoe app, said that in around 10 days’ time the UK could have more cases of Omicron than some countries it had put on the travel red list.
The professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London told BBC Breakfast: “The official estimates are about 350-odd Omicron cases, and because the current testing is missing a lot of those, it’s probably at least 1,000 to 2,000 I would guess at the moment.
“And we are expecting this to be doubling about every two days at the moment, so if you do your maths – say assumed it’s 1,000 at the moment, and you think it’s going to be doubling every two days, you can see that those numbers are going to be pretty (high) certainly in about 10 days time.
“By that time, we’ll probably have more cases than they will in some of those African countries.
“So I think these travel restrictions do perhaps have their place initially, when cases are really low here and really high in the other country, but when we reach that equilibrium, there’s very little point in having them in my opinion.”
He said that data from the Zoe symptom study app suggests that about half of all cases at the moment of Delta are being “missed” because they are not presenting with “classic” Covid symptoms of fever, new and persistent cough and a loss or change of smell or taste.
“Omicron is probably more, much more similar to the mild variants we’re seeing in people who have been vaccinated with Delta than anything else,” he said.
“And so it is going to be producing cold-like symptoms that people won’t recognise as Covid if they just believe the official Government advice.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid cautioned the variant was spreading within communities, rather than just being linked to international travel.
And the decision on pre-departure tests followed calls from Labour to implement the process.
It will mean anyone travelling to the UK from countries not on the red list will be required to take a pre-departure test a maximum of 48 hours before leaving, regardless of their vaccination status.
And if they test positive, they will not be allowed to travel.
Scotland and Wales have said they will implement similar measures.
However, the requirement was greeted with anger and dismay across the travel sector.
On Monday, Mr Javid said: “The Omicron variant is continuing to spread here and around the world.
“According to the latest data there are now 261 confirmed cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336.
“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 Government cannot “say for certain” whether Omicron will escape Covid vaccines, or how severe a disease it will cause.
He told MPs: “We are learning more about this new variant all the time.
“Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than for the Delta variant, but we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.
“We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.”
He added: “We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves times and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid-19.”
But he said of the cases identified so far, none had resulted in hospital admission.
Mr Javid said the measures were temporary, and acknowledged they would cause disruption.
He said: “We’re taking this early action now so we don’t have to take tougher action later on, and so that we can take every opportunity to prevent more cases from arriving in our country.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Government must now do “whatever it can” to lower the price of Covid-19 pre-departure tests.
He said: “I would have liked to see the Government act more quickly. As ever, they are behind the curve. As soon as we saw the scientific evidence saying that (there) should be pre-departure tests, we called on the Government to do this last week. The Government delayed, as they always do.
“They’ve done it now, that’s a good thing. But the Government needs to get ahead instead of being behind.”
He added: “I also want to see the Government doing whatever it can to bring the price of these tests down because lots of people… (are) getting really hammered by prices that can’t be justified.”
Those arriving from countries on the red list of travel restrictions will need to quarantine in hotels.