The U.K. tightened up rules Saturday on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two cases of the new, potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, as governments around the world.
Amid fears that the recently identified new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take "targeted and precautionary measures" after two people tested positive for the new variant in England, and that these will be reviewed in three weeks when scientists will know more about Omicron.
Johnson told a news conference that anyone arriving in England will be asked to take a a mandatory PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day and must self isolate until they provide a negative test. And if someone tests positive for the Omicron variant, then he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status.
He also said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required and that the vaccination program will be accelerated, without providing specific details.
"Right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses," he said. "From today we're going to boost the booster campaign."
One of the two new cases was found in the southeastern English town of Brentwood, while the other is in the central city of Nottingham. The two cases are linked and involve travel from southern Africa. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating alongside their households while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.
The British government also added four more countries — Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia — onto the country's travel red list from Sunday. Six others — Botswana, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — were added Friday. That means anyone permitted to arrive from those destinations will have to quarantine.
Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant — against the advice of the World Health Organization.
Despite the banning of flights, there are mounting concerns that the variant has already been widely seeded around the world. In addition to the U.K, cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong. Germany also said it suspected a positive case and Dutch authorities were testing whether 61 people who arrived on two flights from South Africa with COVID-19 have the Omicron variant.
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