Politics

Don’t Socialise If You Don’t Need To, Health Chief Says Amid Omicron Concerns

The head of NHS Test and Trace has warned people not to socialise unless necessary in a bid to slow the new omicron variant that has reached the UK.

Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), also said working from home would be a “good thing to do” if cases of the new variant began to surge.

Harries told Radio 4′s Today programme that even if the current vaccines proved to be effective against the new variant, if it is highly transmissible then it could still have a “significant impact” on hospitals.

And she said that people’s “behaviours” around winter and Christmas, when there is more socialising, “need to be taken into account”.

“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,” she said.

“So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jobs which, of course, people will now be able to have at a three-month interval from their primary course.”

Fourteen cases of the omicron variant have now been detected in the UK, prompting ministers to introduce a raft of new measures in England such as mask-wearing in some public places and on public transport.

However, the government has so far resisted introducing stricter guidance such as home working, and have also signalled that Christmas is “on track” — demonstrating the difference of opinion between scientists and politicians.

The health chief also pointed to advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) showing that “if we have significant surges in Covid cases, then actually working from home is one of the key ones to implement and that’s why it is in Plan B”.

“But it’s probably worth just thinking through at the moment; although I’m sure we will have more cases announced, we do only have five confirmed cases (of the new Omicron variant in England) and 10 highly probable at the moment.

“So it’s a very early stage for this, I think, but certainly, if we see surges, then working from home will be a good thing to do.”

From today people in England will have to wear a mask in a number of public places and on public transport, in line with some curbs that exist elsewhere in the UK.

Travel restrictions have also been tightened, meaning people coming to the UK from anywhere abroad will have to take a PCR test within two days of arriving and will have to self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

Unveiling the new measures in parliament on Monday, Javid said the best defence against the variant was to “put the booster programme on steroids”.

As of yesterday, the booster programme has been massively expanded so that all those over 18 are now eligible to get their third jab, while the time people have to wait between their second and third jabs will be slashed from six months to three.

Harries said it was highly likely that the UK’s vaccination programme will be beneficial in the face of the omicron variant but experts have also said they expect vaccine effectiveness to be reduced.

She said the current understanding is that the booster will “shoot up your immunity levels and so getting that high background level of immunity on a population basis may, to some extent, counter the reduced effectiveness against this particular variant”.

Harries also warned people to be “really careful about interpreting the data” after suggestions from South Africa that the variant was only causing mild illness.

The average age of the UK population stood at 41 while it was 27 in South Africa, she warned.


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