Ministers are trying to use “balance and proportion” when considering new restrictions over the Omicron variant but will take “immediate action” if there is a spike in infections in Europe, the health minister has said.
Gillian Keegan said fresh restrictions set to come in place today, including compulsory mask-wearing in shops and public transport, would “buy some time” to understand the new variant.
“We know it’s very transmissible but we don’t know whether the vaccine will work,” she told Sky News.
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Asked whether the UK should expect further restrictions on travel, the health minister added that the Government was “trying to keep things going”, but refused to rule out countries on the continent being added to the red list.
“Obviously we’ve put some more countries on the red list but we’re not doing some things which would potentially shut travel down altogether,” she said. “The red list is reviewed every three weeks so we’ll continue to do that… and obviously if we get some flare-ups in cases then we’ll take immediate action.”
The UK has taken the precaution of blocking flights from 10 countries where the variant has been identified, including Botswana, Eswatini and South Africa.
Ms Keegan added that ministers were “very much hoping that we can keep Christmas on track” this year, as she urged people to come forward for their booster jab to maximise immunity against the Omicron variant.
It comes after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) yesterday made all adults eligible for booster vaccines as it halved the recommended gap between second and third doses to three months.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said that the best defence against the new variant was to “put the booster programme on steroids”, adding that although vaccines might be less effective against Omicron “it’s highly unlikely they will have no effect for us at all against serious disease. So it’s really important that we get as many jabs in arms as possible.”
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So far, 14 cases of the new variant have been confirmed in Britain with dozens more suspected.
Health officials are concerned that Omicron may be more resistant to vaccines than the dominant Delta variant, though they are still awaiting key data about whether it evades immunity.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that increasing a small handful of restrictions in the meantime would bolster the progress of the booster programme.
From today masks must be worn in hairdressers, beauty salons, banks, post offices, shops and public transport in England. They do not need to be worn at present in pubs or restaurants.