The Omicron Covid variant has already been detected in Brits with no travel links to southern Africa, it emerged today.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said “there might already be some community transmission” after six cases were announced in the country.
Branding it “potentially the most challenging development” for many months, she also demanded Boris Johnson tighten up travel rules.
From 4am tomorrow, all travellers arriving in the UK will have to take a PCR test on or before day 2 after their arrival – and isolate until it comes back negative.
But Ms Sturgeon and Wales’ First Minister today wrote to Boris Johnson demanding all UK arrivals isolate for eight days, with PCR tests on day 2 and day 8.
They also demanded assurances that the Treasury will fund support for workers if “more significant” restrictions are needed. And they urged the Prime Minister to call a COBRA meeting “as soon as possible”, with Ms Sturgeon saying “people might raise an eyebrow” if that doesn’t happen.
Scientists around the world are scrambling to find out whether the B.1.1.529 variant, first identified by scientists in South Africa with more than 30 mutations, is more deadly or if it evades vaccines.
Nine cases have now been found in the UK – three in England (Essex, Westminster and Nottingham), four in Lanarkshire and two in the greater Glasgow and Clyde region.
Ms Sturgeon said contact tracing of the six Scottish cases is still ongoing, but told a press conference: “We know at this stage that not all of them have any recent travel history to, or known links with others who have travelled to the countries in southern Africa where the variant was originally detected.
“This suggests there might already be some community transmission of this variant in Scotland.
“But again let me stress there is no evidence yet that this is sustained, nor any evidence from the enhanced surveillance that it is widespread at this stage.”
Ms Sturgeon said she was not at this stage urging people in Scotland to cancel Christmas plans or avoid parties.
But she and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford demanded a “tougher four-nations approach” to travel in a letter to Boris Johnson.
She said: “The incubation period for this virus is very often more than two days.
“So our view is it would be sensible on a precautionary basis for these travel rules to be tightened further. That’s a view shared by the Welsh government.”
In their letter the two First Ministers wrote: “We believe the reinstatement of a requirement for a ‘day 8’ PCR test for travellers arriving into the UK – alongside the ‘day 2’ requirement already announced, and thereby requiring isolation for that whole period – is now necessary.
“Public health advice is unequivocal that this is the best and safest way to protect against the importation of this variant to the fullest extent possible.”
Ms Sturgeon said she currently has “no information” on whether the cases were linked to the COP26 climate summit, which ran in Glasgow to mid-November.
She added: “While we all hope the emerging understanding of it will reduce rather than increase our level of concern, there is no doubt this presents potentially the most challenging development in the course of the pandemic for quite some time.”
It comes after a Tory health minister suggested Brits should “reflect carefully” on risks from the new Omicron Covid variant before going to Christmas parties.
Edward Argar said the government will let people in England “use their judgments” about whether to attend festive bashes this year. The minister said he is “not anticipating” further restrictions being unveiled in England in the next three weeks.
But he feared he won’t have time to attend any Christmas parties himself – and added: “I think everyone will be hearing news about this new variant and will reflect carefully on how they are going to react to it.”
The UK government is enacting compulsory face masks in England’s shops, public transport and hairdressers from tomorrow – but not pubs and restaurants.
Boris Johnson also stopped short of forcing crowded venues like nightclubs to ask punters for a vaccine passport, another part of England’s Plan B for winter.
That is despite voluntary guidance saying: “You should wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed areas where you come into contact with people you do not usually meet.”
People are also urged to take lateral flow tests before going to Christmas parties or other crowded settings.
Face masks will be mandatory by law in England’s hairdressers, banks and post offices from tomorrow – but not pubs or restaurants – with £200 fines for offenders.
But ministers have had to defend the decision not to enforce face coverings in pubs or restaurants, even crowded ones.
Mr Argar said people standing at the bar are often only there for a short time, and will then “sip a drink on the way back to their table, where they’ll be seated”.
Teachers and pupils in Year 7 and above are now being “strongly advised” to wear masks in communal areas outside classrooms in England.
Ten countries have been added to England’s red list, forcing all arrivals into hotel quarantine. They are Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
From 4am tomorrow, all travellers to the UK will have to take a paid-for PCR test on or before day two after their arrival, and isolate until the result comes back negative.
Meanwhile Covid booster jabs look set to be expanded to all over-18s in the UK, down from over-40s now. And the six-month minimum gap between second and third dose could be reduced.
All contacts of suspected Omicron cases will also have to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they’re fully-vaccinated.
Ministers said the restrictions were a bid to buy time while scientists work out whether the variant could be more resistant to a vaccine.Internet Explorer Channel Network