Face masks will be made mandatory in shops and on public transport in England from Tuesday, the UK health secretary said on Sunday, under fresh measures designed to contain the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
But Sajid Javid said the government was “nowhere near” imposing stricter rules on homeworking and social distancing after the UK detected its first cases of the variant.
A third confirmed case has been identified in the UK, and dozens more are being treated as suspected cases, people familiar with the matter have told the Financial Times.
The UK Health Security Agency said the third case had tested positive after arriving in the UK and was linked to travel to southern Africa. The agency said the individual had now left the UK but it was “carrying out targeted testing at locations where the positive case visited when they were likely to have been infectious”. The person had been in the Westminster area of central London, it added.
Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, said: “Our advanced sequencing capabilities enable us to find variants and take rapid action to limit onward spread. It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing.”
A number of cases are being investigated in London and there is a potential case in Bedfordshire, according to people familiar with the process.
In a development that could suggest the Omicron strain was in the UK before it was officially identified, public health leaders have been briefed that among the cases being investigated is a traveller who arrived back in London from South Africa on November 16.
If the person is confirmed to be infected with Omicron, it would suggest the mutation may have been circulating in the country for significantly longer than previously thought.
Under measures announced over the weekend, everyone entering the UK will be required to take a PCR test within two days of their arrival and must self-isolate until they receive a negative result. The new measures will be introduced from 4am on Tuesday.
Any contact of a suspected case of Omicron must also isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, called on the government to immediately reinstate pre-travel tests as part of the measures to identify and prevent the spread of the variant.
While scientists continue to assess the new variant, the government has not yet deployed its Covid-19 plan B, which includes guidance on working from home and Covid passports for mass events.
“We know now that those type of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as the impact on mental health,” Javid told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday show.
“If one was to make decisions like that, it would have to be done very, very carefully. We’re not there yet. We’re nowhere near that.”
The new measures were introduced as the variant continued to spread in Europe and scientists raced to assess the new level of risk.
Prof Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical adviser, has warned the variant may be able to evade vaccine protection, but insisted that it was likely vaccines would still help prevent severe illness and death.
Javid said he was expecting an update imminently on expanding the availability of booster vaccines for under-40s from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, a body of academics and clinicians who advise on vaccine policy.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said 96m doses of Covid vaccine had now been given in England, but the emergence of the new variant, Omicron “shows that this pandemic is far from over”.
“With Christmas around the corner, getting jabbed is the best shot we have to keep the country going forwards in our collective Covid battle,” he said.
Results of tests to gauge Omicron’s response to vaccines and immune systems were not expected for two to three weeks, scientists and officials said.
In preliminary assays, about 40 travellers appeared to show the presence of Omicron, one of the people said. Tests are being carried out to confirm this finding through genomic sequencing. The travellers are being told to re-swab and isolate.