Health Secretary Sajid Javid today confirmed that two cases of the Omicron Covid strain had been detected – one in Chelmsford and one in Nottingham as four more countries are added to the UK’s red travel list
The first cases of the new Omicron Covid variant, which experts fear could pose a “substantial” new risk has now been found in the UK.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid this afternoon confirmed that two people had been confirmed to have the strain.
One case has been located in Chelmsford and the other in Nottingham, officials said.
Four more countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola – will be added to the UK’s red travel list from 4am tomorrow, it was announced.
Earlier today authorities in Germany and the Czech Republic said suspected cases of the variant had been found earlier today, after Belgium yesterday became the first European country to identify a person with the Omicron strain.
Health chiefs across the world say the new strain, centred in south African countries, is the “worst and most worrying” yet discovered – although this morning a SAGE expert said it does not appear to be more deadly.
Mr Javid has previously warned the new strain may be more infectious than the deadly Delta strain.
The variant, also known as B.1.1.529, is known to be the most evolved already with 50 mutations and has been described as “the worst one we’ve seen so far”.
Countries have been desperately tightening their travel restrictions after the new coronavirus variant was identified.
The UK were among those rushing in stricter quarantine measures and banning flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries altogether, with up to 700 people flying in per day.
Cases have mainly been confirmed in South Africa, but have also been detected in Hong Kong, Israel, Botswana.
It entered Europe after Belgium reported its first case.
Mr Javid said in a statement released by the Department of Health: “Thanks to our world class genomic sequencing we have been made aware of two UK cases of the Omicron variant. We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing.
“We will do all we can to protect the UK public against this emerging threat and that is why we are surging testing capacity to the impacted communities and introducing travel restrictions on a further four countries: Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola. We will not hesitate to take further action if required.
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“This is a stark reminder that we are not yet out of this pandemic. Getting the vaccine has never been more important – please come forward for your first jab if you haven’t already and if eligible, book your booster as soon as possible.”
England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said experts are working hard to find out if the variant is cause for alarm.
He said: “We will continue to work closely with the international community to quickly gather and analyse information on this variant to understand any possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.
“It is important that everyone takes sensible precautions – get a PCR test if you have symptoms, isolate when asked, wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces, ventilate rooms, get your vaccine and boosters as soon as you can.”
Earlier today SAGE scientist Professor Calum Semple told BBC Breakfast that the Omicron variant will reach the UK “by hook or by crook”.
Prof Semple said he is hopeful Omicron – which was first identified by scientists in South Africa – will not evade vaccines.
He said: “It’s very early days, we’ve only known about this virus for a few weeks.
“The evidence is its not causing more death and that’s important.
“The problem this might present is it might evade some of the vaccines but it might not evade the boosters or the two proper doses.”
He encouraged people to go and get their coronavirus booster vaccines.
Speaking about the decision to place six countries on the red travel list, Professor Semple added: “If you can slow the virus coming into the country because you’re timed for the booster campaign to get ahead of it, and it leaves the scientists to see if there is anything to worry about, which it doesn’t seem it.
“The virus will get here by hook or crook, eventually, it will come here as people are asymptomatic, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and slow it down.”
The World Health Organisation said on Friday that it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant.
Mr Javid told MPs: “We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health. The variant has an unusual large number of mutations.
“This variant is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over.
“We must continue to act with caution and do all we can to keep this virus at bay, including once you’re eligible getting your booster shot.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, feared it was a matter of time before the UK reported its first case.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Dr Hopkins said: “The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta.
“And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation.
“There’s new ones we haven’t seen before, so we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.
“So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite its definitely the most complex variant before.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said last week the UK was simply “buying time” by adding South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to its travel red list.
The Government is still resisting a move to Plan B measures – but Mr Javid warned that “if we need to go further, we will”.