Health Minister Gillian Keegan today insisted it is better for the UK to ‘overreact than underreact’ to the new Omicron coronavirus variant after Joe Biden told the US the mutant strain is ‘not a cause for panic’.
The Government’s new rules on face masks and self-isolation to slow the spread of the variant came into effect in England from 4am this morning.
Ms Keegan said ministers are trying to strike the right ‘balance’ in the response but she admitted it is a difficult judgment to make because there are many ‘unknowns’ associated with the variant.
Meanwhile, Ms Keegan insisted ‘Christmas is on track’ amid fears the Omicron variant could result in more people having to self-isolate over the festive period.
Last night US President Mr Biden said that ‘this variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic’.
His comments prompted scrutiny of the UK’s response which has seen ministers roll out three main curbs to buy scientists some time as they race to analyse the new variant and assess how effective existing vaccines will be against it.
Face masks are once again compulsory in shops and on public transport while all travellers returning to the UK must now take a PCR test on or before day two after their arrival. They can leave isolation once they have a negative test result.
All close contacts of Omicron cases must isolate at home for ten days regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not, prompting fears of another ‘pingdemic’.
The number of Omicron cases identified in the UK has now hit 14 after Scotland announced three more this morning, bringing its total to nine, while England has discovered five.
Health Minister Gillian Keegan today insisted it is better for the UK to ‘overreact than underreact’ to the new Omicron coronavirus varian
Vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer are already working on Covid vaccines that could tackle the Omicron strain, if it poses a problem for the current crop of vaccines, but they won’t be ready until mid-2022
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
US President Joe Biden said last night that the variant is ‘a cause for concern, not a cause for panic’
Ms Keegan was asked during an interview on Sky News if the UK is in danger of overreacting.
She replied: ‘We are trying to get that balance and proportion and it is difficult because it is unknown so we need to buy some time so our scientists can work with the world’s leading scientists to just basically figure out, we know it is very transmissible by looking, but we don’t know whether it’ll work with the vaccine, the vaccine will work, or the other treatments etc.
‘So the scientists do need some time for that. We think we have got the balance and the proportional response to it.
‘But we will review it in three weeks, that will give the scientists enough time to hopefully give us some insights then.’
Told that it could subsequently become apparent that the UK has overreacted, Ms Keegan said: ‘I would rather overreact than underreact at this point.
‘I think we have been here so many times that, you know, we have got this fantastic wall of vaccine now, we want to keep that, we want to strengthen it.
‘We would rather be stronger to be able to face any new variants and I think we have all the things, all the capability to do that, so that is what we would rather do.’
The new self-isolation rules for people identified as a close contact of an Omicron case has sparked concerns of a potential ‘pingdemic’ at Christmas, should the variant surge in the UK in the coming weeks.
Told that the restrictions could result in more people being unable to see their family over the Christmas period, Ms Keegan said: ‘Obviously you could be self-isolating over Christmas. You could be. But what we are hoping is we keep these cases, obviously everybody is going to be contacted, people will start the isolation.
‘With or without this you could be isolating for Christmas, with another variant.
‘Of course Christmas is on track. What everyone wants for Christmas is if you haven’t had your first jab, come and get it, if you haven’t had your second jab, come and get it, and if you haven’t had your booster, come and get it when you are asked.’
Ms Keegan said that Christmas will ‘hopefully not’ be ruined, adding: ‘Let’s be proportional and balanced as we are trying to be, we have got five cases today, that will go up I am pretty sure, but what we are trying to do is really clampdown on that as much as possible.’