Omicron variant: New curbs begin in Britain as virus cases rise

Number of new cases rose to 259 in the last 24 hours

Reuters file photo
Reuters file photo

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 10 Dec 2021, 2:40 PM

A new set of rules termed Plan B by the Boris Johnson government took effect on Friday as the number of Omicron cases in the United Kingdom rose by 259 in the last 24 hours, with experts expecting a surge in the near future.

The new restrictions are applicable within the UK. For international arrivals, the government has already made a Covid-19 test mandatory before leaving for destinations in the UK from December 7.

Pre-departure tests and Plan B rules have dismayed the aviation and other sectors that were beginning to come to terms with the downturn caused by the pandemic. There is increased uncertainty over how the new challenge of Omicron will affect Christmas.

From today (December 10), face coverings have become compulsory in most public indoor venues, such as cinemas, theatres and places of worship. There will be exemptions in venues where it is not practical to wear one, such as when eating, drinking or exercising.

From Monday (December 13), those who can will be advised to work from home and from Wednesday (December 15), the NHS Covid Pass on the NHS App will become mandatory for entry into nightclubs and settings where large crowds gather, including unseated indoor events with 500 or more attendees, unseated outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees, and any event with 10,000 or more attendees.

On Omicron, officials said that early indications showed a large number of concerning spike protein mutations as well as mutations in other parts of the viral genome. The most recent data suggests that it has a very high growth rate and is spreading rapidly.

S-gene drop out cases have grown from 0.15% of cases during the week of November 21, to 3.3% of cases since December 5 in England. Early analysis from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) suggesting the doubling time could be as little as 2.5 to 3 days.

Johnson said: “As we learn more, so we will be guided by the hard medical data around four key criteria: the efficacy of our vaccines and our boosters, the severity of Omicron, the speed of its spread, and the rate of hospitalisations. We will constantly monitor the data and keep it under review. And of course we must be humble in the face of this virus”.

The UKHSA’s assessment suggests that Omicron is displaying a significant growth advantage over Delta, meaning that it is likely to outcompete Delta in the UK and become the dominant variant.

It said: “If the growth rate and doubling time continue at the rate we have seen in the last 2 weeks, we expect to see at least 50 per cent of coronavirus (Covid-19) cases to be caused by Omicron variant in the next 2 to 4 weeks”.

“The risk assessment also suggests that Omicron displays a reduction in protection offered by having had a previous infection or vaccination. Whilst there are insufficient data to quantify either vaccine effectiveness or risk of reinfection in the UK exactly, the observed growth, case distribution and early analyses in both South Africa and the UK are consistent with some loss of immune protection against infection. New studies are being undertaken to assess this further”.

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