UK toughens Covid rules as new strain hits market

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London (AFP) – The UK on Saturday announced stricter entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a mask mandate after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19.

The cases were both related to travel from southern Africa, and the government also increased travel restrictions to the region by adding four countries to a “red list”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said face masks would be required again in shops and public transport after controversially abandoning the mandate in July when he reopened the UK economy after a previous nationwide lockdown.

He now signaled no new lockdown, vowed a review of the new measures in three weeks and expressed the hope that the British could look forward to a more festive Christmas than last year.

“But we need to go further now and introduce a proportionate testing regime for comers from around the world,” Johnson said at a hastily arranged press conference hours after the government confirmed the first two Omicron cases.

“So we’re not going to stop people from traveling… but we’re going to require anyone entering the UK to do a PCR test by the end of the second day after they arrive and self-isolate until they get a negative Result has. ” he said.

Currently, all British and foreign nationals entering the UK are required to have a PCR test the second day after they arrive.

The new rules add the requirement of isolation to a negative result, greatly tightening the regime to contain the spread of the new strain.

“I very much hope that we will find that we remain in a strong position and that we can take these measures back,” said Johnson. “But at the moment this is a responsible approach.”

The Prime Minister did not indicate when the new test regime and mask mandate would come into effect.

Boosting the booster

But effective early Sunday, the government said it banned travel to four other African countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.

Great Britain has already announced that it will ban travel from six South African countries due to the emergence of Omicron: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

“After overnight genome sequencing, the UK health security agency has confirmed that two cases of Covid-19 with mutations consistent with B.1.1.529 (Omicron) have been identified in the UK,” said a government statement.

“The two cases are related and there is a connection to travel to southern Africa,” it said.

One case was discovered in the central English city of Nottingham and the other in Chelmsford, east of London, officials said.

“We have been moving quickly and people are self-isolating while the contact tracing is ongoing,” said Health Minister Sajid Javid.

The government was widely criticized for its travel and quarantine policies early in the pandemic for keeping borders open to foreign travelers even as infection rates rose.

“This is a strong reminder that we are not yet through this pandemic,” said Javid, urging the public to get follow-up vaccination.

Johnson said he plans to expand the booster vaccination program in the hopes that government scientists will agree to a government request to shorten the time frame between the second and third vaccination, which is currently set at six months.

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