The U.K. government on Saturday said that it was planning new measures to combat the omicron COVID-19 variant, including mandatory PCR tests for all arriving international travelers and ramping up the use of face masks.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the measures at a news conference alongside his chief medical officers.
Hours earlier, the U.K. health secretary confirmed that two people tested positive with the omicron variant and that the cases are linked and related to travel from southern Africa.
Britain became the latest country Saturday to report cases of the new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus as governments around the world sought to shore up their defenses by slapping restrictions on travel from nations in southern Africa.
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.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that two people have tested positive with the omicron variant in the southeastern English town of Chelmsford and in the central city of Nottingham. He said the cases were linked and related to travel from southern Africa.
Javid said the two confirmed cases are self-isolating alongside their households while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.
He 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.
“This is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over,” he said. “If we need to take further action, we will.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, along with his top advisers, will be holding a media briefing later Saturday.
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.
Pharmaceutical companies expressed optimism that they could finesse their vaccines to deal with the new variant though that would clearly take some time.
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. The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government imposed a ban on flights from southern African nations.
The 539 travelers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue their journeys to other countries. Under government regulations, those who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.
Meanwhile, a German official said that there’s a “very high probability” that the omicron variant has already arrived in the country.