‘Worst ever’ Covid Omicron already in UK warn scientists – and is ‘substantial risk’


Experts are warnig of a new virus wave amid fears of tighter curbs by Christmas as the UK Health Security Agency admitted Covid variant B.1.1.529, which has an ­unprecedented 32 mutations and is now named ‘Omicron’, may already have arrived

The World Health Organisation warned evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of re-infection and may spread more rapidly (file photo)

The race is on to trace cases of the “most worrying” Covid-19 ­variant in Britain yet, as experts warned to be ready for ­possible restrictions this Christmas.

The UK Health Security Agency admitted B.1.1.529, which has an ­unprecedented 32 mutations, may already have arrived from southern Africa after Belgium said it had been found in a woman who had visited Egypt.

The World Health Organisation warned evidence suggests the variant, labelled Omicron in its Greek alphabet naming convention, has an increased risk of re-infection and may spread more rapidly.

The variant should have been called Nu but the WHO believes that would be confused with the word “new”, so used the next letter – omicron.

From midday today, the UK halted flights from six countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Experts warned to be ready for ­possible restrictions this Christmas (file photo)



Health Secretary Sajid Javid, in an urgent statement in the Commons, told the public: “If you’ve arrived from any of these countries in the last 10 days, NHS Test and Trace will be asking you to take a PCR test.

“But please don’t wait to be contacted. You should take PCR tests right away.”

He added: “It is highly likely it has spread to other ­countries. We are concerned this variant may pose substantial risk to public health.”

Almost 10,000 people have arrived from South Africa in the past two weeks. Around 100 cases of Omicron had been found by genetic sequencing in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel. The European ­Commission has ­recommended an EU-wide travel ban to and from southern Africa.

Experts fear history could repeat itself a year after the Alpha variant triggered a Christmas lockdown.

Prof Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, warned: “We all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.”

Mr Javid said the Government is still following its Plan A but warned, “if we need to go further, we will”.

Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK ­Consortium, said we may only be able to “buy time” before the Omicron variant gets in to Britain.

Carol Popplestone, council chair of the Royal College of Nursing, called for swift action (file photo)


Getty Images)

She said: “Once a new variant of concern emerges, and it’s fitter than the previous variant, it can be ­difficult to stop it going into a country unless you have very, very ­stringent lockdown rules.” Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, said: “It is the most worrying we have seen.”

Asked if it could already be in Britain, she said: “It’s always possible.”

Prof John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said: “This is a huge worry. The molecular data would point to perhaps this thing being able to evade the immune response.”

And England’s Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty told the Local Government Association his greatest fear is people would not adhere to another lockdown after “two years of their lives being interfered with”.

Britain’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid


PRU/AFP via Getty Images)

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said any spread “could coincide with what we’re expecting to be an extremely ­difficult winter”.

Carol Popplestone, council chair of the Royal College of Nursing, called for swift action. She urged: “The Government must reintroduce compulsory face coverings immediately and set out further steps in the coming days.”

Welsh rugby teams Cardiff and Scarlets were trying to return from South Africa, and 15 UK and Ireland golfers have quit the Johannesburg Open.

Tourists from the UK landing in Cape Town wept when they were told South Africa was “red listed”.

Anna DeMarigny, 64, of Galway, Ireland, had flown in to see her terminally ill friend.

Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps



She said: “My daughter is due to visit me from San Francisco with her baby. I can’t go into quarantine. I’m going to have to cut short my stay.”

Tony Haupt, 77, of Oxford, had arrived to visit five of his six ­children. He said: “I hope I get back in time for my daughter’s graduation.”

Mr Javid said the ban on flights is temporary while the UK re-established its Red List hotel ­quarantine scheme.

But Dr Angelique Coet­­zee, of the South African Medical ­Association, said the travel restrictions are “like a storm in a teacup.”

England’s weekly R number has risen above one to between 1.0 and 1.1, estimates suggest


Getty Images)

Downing Street said Boris Johnson had spoken to South Africa’s ­president Cyril Ramaphosa, saying: “The PM commended South Africa’s leadership in transparently sharing data.”

AstraZeneca said it is hopeful that its antibody cocktail will retain ­efficacy against the omicron variant.

England’s weekly R number has risen above one to between 1.0 and 1.1, estimates suggest.

In the latest 24-hour period, 50,091 infections were recorded, the highest daily count for over a month.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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