This time last week nobody knew that Omicron existed, now it’s all anyone can talk about. And with good reason, the new variant is quite literally going viral and the world is holding its collective breath as we wait to see how dangerous, how infectious and how evasive of the vaccines it is.
And with so much still unknown, the government has announced a series of new measures to combat the effects of the variant and to slow its spread. This will affect all of us and the new rules come into effect from this morning.
1. Masks are now obligatory in shops…
If you’ve enjoyed the freedom of strolling round an empty B&Q with your mouth and nose bared to the smells from the paint matching machine, then you’ll be disappointed to learn that from this morning mask wearing is obligatory in retail settings.
Non-compliance will be met with a £200 fine...
This includes hairdressers, post offices and banks as well as traditional shoppy-shops and will apply to all adults unless you are exempt.
The new measure is the law and non-compliance will be met with a £200 fine.
2. …And on the train
Anyone who gets the tube daily will have noticed that mask wearing has dwindled to what seems to be like a minority hobby with around 20% of the public willing to don one despite it being mandated by Sadiq Khan.
Mask wearing has dwindled to what seems to be like a minority hobby...
It’s worth pointing out that Khan, and indeed the opposition Labour Party, have been pushing for masks on transport for months, along with a mandate to work from home and other social distancing measures to battle the Delta Variant. Their calls have, until now, fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall (and, to be fair, Britain has not yet experienced the spike in Delta cases that Europe has so until now this has paid off for the government). But the threat of Omicron changes all that.
How the government has stepped in and decided that masks should be worn on all public transport, and backed by the two hundred quid forfeit, it’s likely that masks will once again be de rigueur.
3. Immediate red-listing of South Africa and neighbouring countries
In a move heavily criticised by the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, the UK, American and the EU all imposed immediate bans on arrivals from South Africa along with neighbouring nations Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.
This is in an effort to buy time to figure out what the new variant is all about. However it’s been called heavy-handed by the South African government and also, arguably, punishes the country for being so diligent in mapping its infections. South Africa’s history with AIDS and TB mean that that country is ahead of the game when it comes to spotting variants.
Which, of course, raises the spectre that there may well be variants in plenty of other corners of the world – a further case for global vaccinations. This will only be over when it’s defeated everywhere.
The effect of the red list is that only British and Irish nationals may come to the UK from these countries and any arrivals into the UK will have to pay £2,000 per adult for a quarantine hotel (um, prison). If you can get one, because the changes have rendered them completely oversubscribed.
4. PCR tests and isolation for all international arrivals
In a blow to the airline industry and any winter sun prospects, PCR tests are now mandatory for all arrivals into the UK within two days of arrival, and visitors must isolate until they have their result.
This will likely have a chilling effect on a just-recovering tourist sector...
This will likely have a chilling effect on a just-recovering tourist sector as it makes international travel far more tricky, but it’s hoped that it will at least keep Omicron at bay for a little longer.
5. Masks return to schools as well
Though not backed by law, all children in years 7 and above (so around 11 years old and upwards) have been advised to wear masks in schools. University students should also wear masks in communal areas, according to the Department for Education along with staff in childcare settings, such as early years care.
6. And jab jab jab!
The UK is well positioned to deal with the onset of this new variant. Unlike Europe our covid numbers, though high, are relatively flat while over 30% of the public aged 12 and above has now received two doses of the vaccine and their booster jabs.
While there is concern that the new variant may be able to evade some of the protections of the vaccines, with over 90% of the public already in possession of antibodies through vaccines and prior infection, it is likely that only a truly terrible variant would completely derail the effort (and anecdotal evidence from South Africa is that this isn’t that).
But yesterday the government made it possible for anyone aged 18 and over will be able to book a booster jab from 3 months after their second injection (down from six months then five previously announced). 12 to 18 year olds will also now be eligible for second vaccine injections.
The combination of these measures, it is hoped, will buy us the two to three weeks we need to really understand the threat of Omicron. It will also, fingers crossed, save Christmas!