Travel rules have tightened amid the spread of the Omicron variant, reports ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen
Announcing a tightening of travel rules as the Omicron variant continues to spread both worldwide and within the UK, the health secretary said Nigeria has also been added to the UK's travel red list.
Sajid Javid said that in "recent days we have learned of a significant number of growing cases linked to travel with Nigeria.
"There are 27 cases in England already and that's growing."
Health Secretary Sajid Javid announces the toughening of travel restrictions as Omicron cases continue to rise
The UK Health Security Agency said a further 26 cases of the Omicron variant have been reported across the UK, with 25 of these in England.
It means the total number of confirmed cases of the variant in the UK now stands at 160.
Earlier in the day, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that while community transmission of Omicron is "not yet widespread... the nature of this virus, the transmissibilty of it means that I would expect to see more cases, perhaps significantly more cases in the days ahead".It is still too early to draw any conclusions over the variant’s threat level or ability to escape vaccine protection, but the high number of mutations it has means there are fears that current Covid vaccines may not be so effective against it. However, scientists currently believe immunity provided by jabs may help to stop people becoming seriously unwell if they test positive for the Omicron variant.
Also on Saturday, the Department of Health and Social Care said new analysis by the UK HSA suggested the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant, increasing the efficacy of pre-departure testing as it is more likely to identify positive cases before travel.
For Labour, which has been calling for the re-introduction of pre-departure tests since the variant was identified, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper welcomed the move but said ministers should have moved sooner.
“We badly need them to learn the lessons on the importance of acting quickly on Covid border measures rather than each time having to be put under huge pressure to finally act.”
The new testing measures will come into force on Tuesday.
From 4am on Monday, Nigeria will join the following countries on the red list:
Currently, anyone entering the UK from a country which is not on the red list must self-isolate and take a PCR test on or before day two of their arrival in the country, and can only leave their quarantine when they receive a negative result.
However, if a country is on the red list, only UK and Irish residents are allowed to travel from it into the country and they must quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days at their own cost. Non-UK and Irish residents who have been in a red list country in the past 10 days are not permitted to enter the UK.
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The announcement will be seen as evidence of the mounting concern within Whitehall of the threat posed by the Omicron variant.
However, some experts do not believe the new measures do enough to target community transmission of Omicron within the UK.
Speaking to ITV News, Infectious Diseases Expert Dr Ravi Gupta from the University of Cambridge said it is "highly debatable as to what this [pre-departure tests] will achieve because we have this community-wide transmission already in the UK.
"We have a situation where distancing and face coverings are required in some areas but not all walks of life, and gatherings are not limited in any way at the moment, and parties and socialising in pubs, restaurants is still going on.
"Those are conditions, and we have to remember schools as well being open.
"We have the recipe for sustained community transmission of this new variant, regardless of any travel restrictions now, so I do wonder whether this is going to have any impact at all and will damage travel and that industry."
The government's own scientific advisors have gone further than this, suggesting the current measures should be tightened in a bid to decrease social mixing and the spread of the Omicron variant.
In the latest minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), scientists advised the Westminster government that people should reduce their contacts, for example from working from home, vaccine certificates could be brought in and that arriving travellers should take two PCR tests rather than one as the current rules stipulate.
England is the only UK country which is not currently advising people to work from home where possible and which does not have some form of vaccine passport for access to indoor events.
However, the Sage experts only offer advice on how to limit the spread of coronavirus and do not take into account social and economic harms.
The requirement for pre-departure tests was greeted with anger and dismay across the travel sector – just as bookings were picking up with the approach of the Christmas break.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said the rapidly changing measures meant planning for travel was becoming impossible.
“It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data. We don’t have the clinical evidence,” he said.
“They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan. These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.”
The Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee said it was a “devastating blow” for aviation and tourism, and said the government should step in to support the industry.
“Pre-departure tests acts as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday,” she said.
“The UK and devolved governments should have done the right thing and, alongside the restrictions, announced support for our businesses and our staff to get through another period of shutdown.”
Speaking on Saturday, Mr Javid also stressed the government was still looking to the expanded vaccination programme as its main weapon in the fight against the spread of the disease.
Earlier on Saturday, it was announced that GPs in England have been given the green light to push back some of their services so they can better focus on delivering Covid-19 booster jabs.
Minor surgery and routine health checks for the over-75s and new patients may be deferred until the end of March, said NHS chiefs.
Following the decision to ramp up the vaccination programme in a bid to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant, NHS England has told GPs other targets may be suspended and other checks can be deferred.
Individuals who have tested positive for the variant and their contacts are being asked to self-isolate while the HSA said it was carrying out targeted testing at locations where the positive cases were thought likely to be infectious.
It comes as a risk assessment by the HSA rated the Omicron variant as “red” for severity of infection and “amber” for transmissibility between humans.
It said the variant was likely to reduce the protection from both naturally or vaccine-acquired immunity.
However it acknowledged there was so far “insufficient data” to reach firm conclusions and the assessment was presented with “low confidence”.
HSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: “We are working as fast as possible to gather more evidence about any impact the new variant may have on severity of disease or vaccine effectiveness.
“Until we have this evidence, we must exercise the highest level of caution in drawing conclusions about any significant risks to people’s health.”