Joe Biden: The omicron variant is no cause for panic

Joe Biden said: ‘If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there’s no need for lockdowns’ – Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Joe Biden on Monday said there was “no need” for new Covid restrictions in the face of the omicron variant and its emergence was “not a cause for panic”.

Speaking from the White House, the US president predicted that cases of the variant would reach America – but added that was not a reason for another lockdown.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Mr Biden said. “If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there's no need for lockdowns.”

His comments mark a contrast to the approach taken by Boris Johnson, who has been accused of rushing into a new crackdown over the weekend despite a lack of clarity over the potency of omicron. South African scientists said there was no evidence of the variant causing serious illness, and no hospitalisations have yet been recorded.

However, Mr Johnson pushed ahead with new requirements for people to wear face masks in certain settings and self-isolate after arriving from abroad, which come into effect at 4am on Tuesday.

The NHS has been ordered to speed up the rollout of Covid booster vaccines as Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, vowed to put the third jabs programme “on steroids”.

All adults will be eligible for a top-up jab and the waiting time after the second dose has been slashed from six months to three after the Government's science advisers agreed to the change.

Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the UK's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said the booster campaign was now “as urgent as it could possibly be” – but there were few details on exactly when younger adults can get the jab.

Around 25 million people who have yet to get their boosters are now in line for a third jab at some point, but on Monday night NHS officials were unable to say when the rule change would take effect.

Downing Street is hoping to get a million more people a week jabbed with boosters than the current rate – an increase of around 40 per cent.

It would mean a rise from around 2.4 million booster jabs being deployed a week to 3.4 million. Government officials believe it could take three to four weeks to reach that figure.

On Monday, two further cases of the omicron variant were detected in England and six more in Scotland, taking the UK total to 11. But scientists warned it could be weeks before the threat the variant poses to current vaccine resistance is known.

Mr Johnson has issued a fresh plea to Britons to get vaccinated, with ministers arguing that, whatever the danger posed by omicron, people will be better protected if jabbed.

“The measures taking effect are proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new variant,” the Prime Minister said in a statement.

“Based on everything we know, our vaccines and boosters remain our best line of defence – so it is more important than ever that people come forward when eligible to get boosted.

“Not only will today's steps help us slow down the variant's spread, but they will also help us protect each other and the gains we have all worked so hard for.

“The measures are temporary and precautionary, and will be reviewed in three weeks. The regulations will be kept under review to ensure they only remain necessary and proportionate.”

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart, called on the Government to go further on new restrictions. In a letter to Mr Johnson, they requested eight days of self-isolation for all new arrivals, a Treasury guarantee of more financial support and a Cobra meeting to discuss omicron.

However, all three requests were rebuffed, with both Downing Street and Mr Javid arguing those steps were not needed – even as they stressed that nothing could be categorically ruled out in the future.

Mr Javid told MPs that if omicron proved to be “no more dangerous” than the delta variant prevalent in the UK, the new restrictions would not be kept “a day longer than necessary”. On Tuesday, MPs will vote on the measures – but there was frustration on Monday that they were only being given a say after the legal changes came into effect.

Details released by the Government on Monday night showed the new face masks requirement would apply more widely than previously believed, including in hair salons and veterinary surgeries.

Greg Clark, the Tory MP and former Cabinet minister, urged Mr Javid to “avoid taking any panic measures if we see a rise in infections during the weeks ahead, as seems inevitable, and concentrate instead on the vaccines' effectiveness against severe illness and hospitalisation”.

Mr Javid said Mr Clark was “absolutely right that what matters as we look ahead around this new variant – is, more than anything, hospitalisations”.

The Health Secretary also rejected Labour calls for face masks to be made compulsory in pubs, restaurants and school classrooms, telling MPs: “If we want to live with the virus for the long term, we must follow the evidence and act in a proportionate and responsible way if a variant has the potential to thwart our progress.

“And as we do this we are taking a well-rounded view, looking not just the impact of these measures on the virus, but the impact to the economy, education, and non-Covid health such as mental health.”

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