‘It’s going to be a great Christmas,’ Sajid Javid predicts – despite the return of mask-wearing and PCR tests for travellers on Tuesday
A day after the return of compulsory mask-wearing was announced, along with more costly tests for travellers, Sajid Javid sought to reassure people that the moves could be lifted soon – and that harsher curbs were not on the way.
The health secretary insisted it was not necessary to bring back social distancing or a work-from-home rule, dizendo: “We are not there yet – we are nowhere near that.”
Mr Javid expressed hope that the reintroduction in England of face-coverings in shops and on public transport, together with PCR tests for arrivals, would be reversed “within weeks”. They will come into force early on Tuesday.
And he told an interviewer: “I think people should continue with their plans as normal for Christmas; I think it’s going to be a great Christmas,” while offering no “guarantees”.
In a further boost, the doctor who discovered the omicron variant said she thought the UK was “panicking unnecessarily”, and that the new variant did not, to her knowledge, appear to make people seriously ill.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, disse: “What we are seeing clinically in south Africa, and remember I’m at the epicentre – that’s where I’m practising – it’s extremely mild.”
The health secretary’s comments came as the UK recorded another 51 deaths and 37,681 new Covid cases in just 24 horas, and in spite of the detection of a third omicron infection, in a person with links to travel in southern Africa, who visited London before leaving the country again.
Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, said it was “very likely” that further cases of the variant would be discovered in the UK in the coming days.
The booster programme will be speeded up, to deliver third jabs to over-18s “earlier” than planned, in an effort to raise “the antibody level in the whole of the community”.
The deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), Professor Anthony Harnden, called it a “sensible strategy” after the body was asked to explore the move.
The JCVI will also review whether second doses should be offered to 12- to 15-year-olds, and whether the six-month gap between second and booster jabs should be cut.
In further developments:
* Mr Javid admitted that air passengers from South Africa were not tested on arrival na sexta, despite fears they could be carrying the omicron variant
* New guidance for schools said that secondary students must wear masks in communal areas and on school buses
* Gordon Brown warned that next year’s Christmas is at risk from Covid restrictions unless the UK and other rich nations stop hoarding vaccines badly needed in Africa
* Mr Javid was forced to defend not adopting a work-from-home rule – despite the sábio advisory group concluding it to be the most effective Covid-curbing measure
* The health secretary said the advice would be updated if omicron symptoms were confirmed to be different, causing extreme fatigue but no loss of taste or smell
* New coronavirus regulations will be laid in parliament on Monday, but a vote will not be held until up to 28 days later – long after the measures take effect
Early evidence suggests omicron may be more transmissible than the delta variant, the current dominant strain, and that it may partially evade the protection delivered by current vaccines.
The contacts of omicron cases will be told to isolate for 10 dias, until any greater danger from its mutations is established by scientists.
Ruling out further curbs for now, Mr Javid told Sky News: “We know now that those type of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socialmente, and in terms of non-Covid health outcomes, such as the impact on mental health.
“If one was to make decisions like that, they would have to be done very, very carefully. We’re not there yet. We’re nowhere near that.”
And speaking on the BBC, he said people would not be advised to work from home, adicionando: “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Rejecting fears of low compliance with mask-wearing rules – five months after the requirement was lifted – he insisted fears about omicron would persuade people to “take them very seriously”.
Mas Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, disse: “You only have to walk around parliament to see the problem. Most Tory MPs don’t wear masks.”