Government introduces ‘Plan B’ measures as infections spread
The UK government has introduced its ‘Plan B’ restrictions in the light of the rapid spread of the Omicron variation of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The new measures include a return to the guidance to work from home where possible, a requirement for vaccination status to be shown for entrance to many venues, and mandatory wearing of face masks for many indoor venues including theaters and cinemas. This is in addition to rules introduced earlier for the wearing of face masks in retail locations.
The new measures will be introduced on Friday 10th December, and from Monday 13 December, people should work from home “if they can”.
From Wednesday 15 December people will need to show their NHS Covid Pass – or a negative lateral flow test – to gain entry to:
- Indoor seated venues with more than 500 people
- Unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people
- Any venue with more than 10,000 people
The moves are in response to evidence that the number of infections of the Omicron variation of the virus is doubling every 2-3 days.
A first study of the likelihood that the Omicron variation of the COVID-19 virus can cause re-infection suggests that it could overcome established immunity from previous infection or immunisation.
Researchers in South Africa have found evidence of people catching the virus multiple times, which tends to confirm suspicions that the Omicron variation may be more infectious.
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The Omicron variation was first identified in South Africa, and was thought to be responsible for a spike in cases. However, it was not clear whether Omicron itself was more infectious that previous variants, whether its effects would be more serious, or whether it would be resistant to existing vaccines.
The Omicron variation has a number of mutations in the protein spikes which allow it to enter cells, but its still not clear how this will affect its infectiousness. Now researchers in South Africa have examined nearly 36,000 cases of reinfections to see whether the surge in cases is due to the Omicron variant being more infectious.
They estimate that Omicron may be twice as infectious as other variations, but admit that this is the result of a very fast study, and the results have not yet been reviewed by other scientists. Prof Juliet Pulliam, from Stellenbosch University and one of the researchers, said: “These findings suggest that Omicron’s selection advantage is at least partially driven by an increased ability to infect previously infected individuals.” She added that it was difficult to assess whether Omicron overcame vaccine-derived immunity because of a lack of data.
However, results from South Africa may be affected by the relatively young age of the population, the low percentage who have been vaccinated, only 24 percent, and the high percentage affected by HIV, which suppresses the immune system.
The Omicron variation of the COVID-19 coronavirus has spread to over 30 countries, including the UK, where 261 cases have been reported. Cases of the Omicron variant in people without any travel history have been confirmed in the UK meaning it is now being transmitted within the community, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said.
Mr Javid said there are now 261 Omicron variant cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales – a total of 336.
“This includes cases with no links to international travel so we can conclude there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England,” he told the Commons.
Questions remain about how much waning immunity is a factor in Omicron infections, hence the government’s emphasis on the importance of booster vaccinations. Pfizer claims that three doses of its vaccination are completely effective against Omicron, and most scientists believe that even if the Omicron variant can overcome vaccination immunity to a degree, vaccination should prevent more serious illness or death. A wave of Omicron infections would though place a burden on the hospital system which is already suffering from winter pressures.
So far there have been no reported cases of Omicron infection requiring hospitalisation in the UK, but it may be a couple of weeks before this becomes clear. England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the “number of mutations present, already on first principle, makes us worry about a possible effect on vaccine effectiveness”.
Prof Francois Balloux, from University College London, said: “The higher estimated re-infection ability of the Omicron variant to cause re-infection is not overly surprising and could be largely anticipated based on the large number of mutations in the spike protein carried by the omicron variant, which increase the Omicron variant’s ability to bypass host immunity.”
The UK government has put new travel regulations in place in an attempt to slow the spread of the Omicron variation. People who are not UK or Irish residents are not allowed to travel to the UK from red list countries, which now includes Nigeria as well as several southern African nations including South Africa where the variant was first identified.
Anyone travelling to the UK from a non-red list country, whether vaccinated or not, will have to show proof of a negative PCR or lateral flow test taken no earlier than 48 hours before departing for the UK, and will have to have a Day-2 PCR test and isolate until getting a negative result. These measures are temporary and will be reviewed shortly. Sajid Javed said: “We must make sure measures are absolutely necessary, we won’t keep measures in place for a day longer than we have to.”
Addressing questions regarding Nigeria being added to the red list, Mr Javid said that UKHSA analysis shows “at least 21 Omicron cases in England alone are linked to travel from Nigeria” while Ghana has reported 25 Omicron cases linked to Nigeria. He added: “And there’s a strong indication that Omicron is present there. Nigeria also has very strong travel links with South Africa.”