UK toughens COVID-19 rules as new Omicron strain arrives


Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces tougher rules in a bid to curb the spread of a new variant of Covid-19. Photo: AFP
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces tougher rules in a bid to curb the spread of a new variant of Covid-19. Photo: AFP

LONDON: Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a masks mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19.

The cases were both linked to travel from southern Africa, and the government also expanded travel restrictions on the region with the addition of four countries to a “red list”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said face masks would again be required in shops and on public transport, after controversially ditching the mandate in July when he reopened the UK economy after a prior nationwide lockdown.

He signalled no new lockdown now, vowing a review of the new measures in three weeks and expressing hope that Britons could look forward to a more festive Christmas than last year.

“But we now need to go further and implement a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from across the whole world,” Johnson told a hastily arranged news conference, hours after the government confirmed the first two Omicron cases.

“So we are not going to stop people travelling… but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” he said.

Currently, all Britons and foreigners entering the UK are required to take a PCR test on day two after their arrival.

The new rules add the requirement for isolation pending a negative result, significantly toughening the regime, in a bid to curb the spread of the new strain.

“I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position and we can lift these measures again,” Johnson said. “But right now this is a responsible course of action.”

The prime minister did not specify when the new testing regime and masks mandate would enter into force.

Boosting the boosters

But effective early Sunday, the government said it was placing another four African countries on its travel ban — Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.

Britain has already said it is banning travel from six southern African nations because of the emergence of Omicron: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

“After overnight genome sequencing, the UK Health Security Agency has confirmed that two cases of Covid-19 with mutations consistent with B.1.1.529 (Omicron) have been identified in the UK,” a government statement said.

“The two cases are linked and there is a link to travel to southern Africa,” it said.

One case was detected in the central English city of Nottingham, and the other in Chelmsford east of London, officials said.

“We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

The government was widely criticised for its travel and quarantine policy earlier in the pandemic, when it kept borders open to foreign travellers even as infection rates spiralled.

“This is a stark reminder that we are not yet out of this pandemic,” Javid said, urging the public to get follow-up booster jabs of vaccines.

Johnson said he planned to expand the programme for booster vaccine shots, with the hope that government scientists will agree a government request to shorten the time-frame between second and third jabs, which is currently set at six months.

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