We were all looking forward to a more normal Christmas this year and then along came Omicron.
Brits are already being urged “not not socialise when we don’t particularly need to” by experts in a bid to deal with the spread of the new Covid variant.
UKHSA head Dr Jenny Harries, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas we tend to socialise more so I think all of those will need to be taken into account.”
Asked whether people should be told to work from home in England, as is happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, she said: “We’ve seen that not everybody has gone back to work and I’d like to think of it more in a general way, which is if we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.
“So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs.”
So far nine people have been identified with Omicron in Scotland, along with five in England.
Dr Harries said there could be a further 10 “highly likely” cases.
But how concerned should we be about the new coronavirus variant and could it really derail our festive plans?
Prof Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, has the answers…
How worried should we be about the Omicron variant?
When any new variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 is identified, we don’t at first know how infectious it will be, whether it will cause a more serious illness than other variants and how well vaccines will work against it.
We therefore need to be cautious and take measures to control the spread of Omicron until this information becomes available. We shouldn’t, however, become unduly anxious.
I’ve heard that the variant causes more mild symptoms. Is that true and if so why are we worried?
Some early reports from South Africa suggest that Omicron may cause a milder illness than other variants. However, we will need data from many more people infected with the Omicron variant – particularly older and clinically vulnerable people – before we can reach reliable conclusions about the severity of the illness it causes.
Why are they giving more booster jabs if the new variant can evade existing vaccines?
Two doses of current vaccines provide good protection – and three doses provides even better protection – against the other strains of coronavirus.
At present, we have no evidence the Omicron variant can evade existing vaccines. We need to continue with the booster programme as this has been very effective in keeping down the number of infections that can result in hospital admission or death.
Does the new variant transmit any differently?
We don’t yet have good data on whether Omicron can infect people more easily than other variants. It will gradually emerge in the coming weeks.
Does it mean existing Covid treatments like the new antiviral treatments won’t work either?
It is possible that some of the newer antiviral treatments won’t work as
well against Omicron as against other variants. However, this will need to be confirmed in research studies.
It’s very likely, however, that antiviral treatments will still reduce the severity of illness caused by Omicron.
What don’t we know about Omicron and when will we know?
We currently lack important information about Omicron – such as how infectious it is, whether it causes a more severe illness than other variants, how well vaccines protect against it and whether antiviral drugs will be helpful in reducing the severity of illness it causes. Research is already underway to answer all of these questions.
How likely is it to affect Christmas and how?
We currently have a high Covid-19 infection rate in the UK. Fortunately, vaccines are keeping down the number of people with a more severe illness, which in turn is keeping the number of hospital admissions and deaths low.
If we can get a high uptake of boosters, we should be able to have a more normal Christmas. But everyone should continue with infection control measures and not rely just on vaccination.
People who are not vaccinated at all (around 11% of people aged 12 and over in the UK) should also come forward.
Will mask wearing really stop it?
Masks can reduce the spread of infection – particularly if a higher specification FFP2 mask is worn.
But they work best when combined with other infection control measures such as vaccination and home-working.
Will bringing forward boosters mean they’re not as efficient?
Bringing forward the booster to three months instead of six after people’s second vaccination won’t reduce its effectiveness in preventing serious illness.
The booster dose substantially increases people’s immunity and this can help stop the Omicron variant evading our current vaccines.
If the time between jabs is now three months, does that mean I’ll soon need a fourth if I had my booster weeks ago?
The three month gap is for people who have not yet had a booster. If you have already had your booster, you won’t get a fourth dose (other than for a small proportion of the population with weak immune systems).
Those who have not yet had a booster no longer have to wait six months from their second dose and can have this earlier.
What will happen in schools?
Many schools in England have had large Covid-19 outbreaks since the new school year started. It’s important that 12-15 year old children are vaccinated and also get a second vaccination once the Government has approved this.
People working in schools also need to be fully vaccinated with three doses (four doses for people with weak immune systems). Any child who is unwell with possible Covid-19 symptoms should get a PCR test and isolate until the result is back. Improving ventilation and air quality in schools is also essential to reduce the risk of infection.
Could there be more travel bans?
If the Omicron variant spreads further, then more countries may be placed on the Red List. This can happen at very short notice, leaving travellers with the option of either cutting short their trip or facing an expensive stay in a quarantine hotel. Everyone should consider this if they are planning an overseas trip.
Where will I need to wear a face mask?
Face coverings will be mandatory by law in England’s shops, public transport, hairdressers, banks and post offices from 4am on Tuesday.
Those who do not comply can be fined £200 for a first offence (£100 if you pay within two weeks), doubling on each repeat offence up to £6,400. Police will be expected to enforce rules.
The Government has not published a full list but masks will not be mandatory in pubs and restaurants or cinemas
and theatres like they were before.
What are the new foreign travel rules?
From 4am on Tuesday, all arrivals in the UK from anywhere in the world must take a paid-for PCR test within 48 hours of their arrival and isolate until the result comes back negative.
Previously, vaccinated travellers only had to take a lateral flow Day 2 test and did not have to isolate. The new rules apply even to the double-jabbed.
Arrivals who land without having booked a Day 2 test in advance can be fined £1,000 on the spot.
Arrival from Red List countries must go into hotel quarantine costing £2,285 a head for 11 nights. Those who breach isolation can be fined up to £10,000.
AFP via Getty Images)
When will I have to self-isolate?
All close contacts of suspected Omicron cases will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their jab status.
People who test positive for Covid must still self-isolate for 10 days and unvaccinated or partially vaccinated close contacts of a Covid case must do the same, regardless of which variant they have.
What are the rules in schools?
The Government is “strongly advising” school pupils above Year 7, staff and visitors to wear masks in communal areas. Local public health teams can send groups of pupils home as a last-ditch measure to stop the spread.
Can Christmas parties and gatherings go ahead?
Yes, there is no legal restriction on Christmas parties. People do not need to wear masks or show a vaccine passport in hospitality venues.
Health Minister Edward Argar said people in England can “use their judgment” about whether
to attend festive bashes this year.
Will the rules be tightened further?
It is possible. Boris Johnson has not yet enacted all of England’s Plan B measures, leaving vaccine passports for nightclubs and stadiums in reserve.
And people have not been advised to work from home where possible, despite advice of that kind in Scotland.
The PM is not planning to adopt Scotland and Wales’ plea for eight days’ isolation for travellers who enter the country, but has not ruled it out.
When will they expire?
They will expire on December 21 with a review ahead of that meaning they could be strengthened for Christmas.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.