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Coronavirus: weekend updates

Friday 26th November

A new variant of COVID-19, the Omicron variant, has been identified and described as “the worst one we’ve seen so far” by a health official. It was first found in Botswana, Africa, back on November 11th. The variant, officially known as B.1.1.529, has caused 6 countries to be moved to the UK’s red travel list.

The countries that the UK have now enforced quarantine upon arrival or departure are South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Eswatini. Flights from these countries to the UK have been suspended due to the rapid increase in cases, mostly in South Africa, over the past few days.

The Omicron variant joins approximately eight other variants that have been identified since September 2020. These have a number of different features and symptoms where the coronavirus molecules have mutated, affecting things such as vaccine efficiency and ease of transmission. Research to establish the effects and genetic makeup of the variant are ongoing, but could take a number of weeks.

At least 50 million UK citizens have received at least one of their vaccines, and 13 million have been given their booster shot, meaning they are more likely to be protected against the Omicron variant. Those that have been hospitalised due to COVID more recently have mostly been the percentage of the population that are unvaccinated.

Sunday 28th November

A third case of the Omicron Coronavirus variant has now been detected within the UK, according to the Health Security Agency. It is reported that the person is no longer within the UK but had visited Westminster in London.

The government have, from today, set out measures in response to the variant, including mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport around the UK from Tuesday (30th November). The Department of Education is also now advising pupils and staff within year 7 and above to wear face coverings within communal areas of schools.

 Early evidence suggests that the Omicron variant, which was originally reported to the World Health Organisation by South Africa on Wednesday, has a higher re-infection risk. On Monday, an emergency meeting of G7 health ministers will be held ‘to discuss the developments on Omicron’ according to the Department for Health and Social Care.

Updated measures will also see people arriving into the UK requiring PCR tests and isolation until they are able to provide evidence of a negative result. This requirement and the mask mandate will both come into effect at 04:00 GMT Tuesday morning.

Sajid Javid announced that he expected to receive new advice within the next couple of days from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) on expanding the booster vaccination programme. The deputy chairman of the JCVI informed the BBC that adults aged 18 and over would ‘have an offer of a booster earlier than we had previously envisaged’.

Ten countries in Southern Africa have now been placed on the UK’s travel red list, meaning that any British or Irish national arriving back into the UK after visiting any of those countries must reside in hotel lodgings to quarantine for ten days. Permanent residents from these questions will not be permitted into the UK until the red list status is lifted.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a core government adviser on the pandemic, reported that ‘it’s likely we’ll detect quite a lot more cases in the coming days” because the UK is among the countries to see the largest number of flights from South Africa, where the variant is circulating. The first UK cases were confirmed on Saturday in Brentwood, Essex, and Nottingham.

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Sienna Norris and Adelaide Cannell

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