Britain tightens COVID rules as world on alert over Omicron
A sign reading, “Stay safe” in Regent Street in London, Friday,November 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel fromsouthern Africa on Friday, and stocks plunged in Asia and Europe inreaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19variant. (Photo: AP)

LONDON (AP) — The UK tightened up rules Saturday on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two cases of the new potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus that was identified just a few days ago in South Africa.

Because of fears that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped.

Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than five million lives around the world, countries are on high alert. Many have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant Delta variant.

In an attempt to slow the spread in the UK, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary measures” after two people tested positive for the new variant in England.

“Right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximise our defenses,” he told a news conference.

Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in England must take a polymerase chain reaction test for COVID-19 on the second day after their arrival and self-isolate until they provide a negative test. And, if someone tests positive for the Omicron variant, then he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status — currently close contacts are exempt from quarantine rules if they are fully vaccinated.

He also said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required and said the independent group of scientists that advises the British Government on the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines has been asked to accelerate the vaccination programme. This could involve widening the booster programme to younger age groups, reducing the time period between a second dose and a booster and allowing older children to get a second dose.

“From today we're going to boost the booster campaign,” he said.

Britain's Department of Health said the two cases found in the UK were linked and involved travel from southern Africa. One of the two new cases was in the south-eastern English town of Brentwood, while the other was in the central city of Nottingham. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating with their households while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.

The British Government also added four more countries — Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia — onto the country's travel red list from Sunday. Six others — Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe — were added Friday. That means anyone permitted to arrive from those destinations will have to quarantine.

Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand, and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant.

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