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U.K. Set Measures To Stop Spread Of Omicron Cases

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference on the new Omicron coronavirus variant, in London, Britain Novem...

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference on the new Omicron coronavirus variant, in London, Britain November 27, 2021. Hollie Adams/Pool via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference on the new Omicron coronavirus variant, in London, Britain November 27, 2021 / Hollie Adams.
Israel banned foreigners from entering the country for two weeks and the U.K. tightened rules for its citizens, seeking to check the advance of a new coronavirus strain moving across the region. The U.K. announced Saturday it had two infections of the new omicron Covid-19 variant, linked to people who’d been in southern Africa, while Israel’s health ministry said it had seven cases -- three of whom had stayed within the country.

Belgium reported a new case in someone who traveled from abroad, and the Netherlands is investigating possible infections from dozens of passengers who arrived from Johannesburg and Cape Town on Friday. Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic also identified cases of the variant, according to various media reports. 

The swift emergence of the omicron variant threatens to hammer the region as governments try to deal with a fourth wave of coronavirus cases -- one that was driven by the infectious delta strain. Global markets were upended on Friday as the news of the latest mutation spurred investors to seek havens rather than bet on assets tied to economic growth. Late Saturday in Jerusalem, Israel’s coronavirus cabinet voted to ban non-citizens from entering the country for 14 days without special permission, and authorized the Shin Bet security agency to track infected people.

In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced measures including a tightening of face mask rules and a requirement for airline travelers to take a PCR test and isolate upon arrival.“We need to take targeted and proportionate measures now as a precaution while we find out more,” he said at a Downing Street briefing. “We need to buy time for our scientists to understand exactly what we’re dealing with.”

U.K. officials leaned on the country’s strong vaccination program as its main defense against the new variant, and said the booster program would be accelerated. “We are not going to stop people traveling, I want to stress that,” Johnson said. In Italy, the variant was confirmed by Sacco hospital in Milan, Associated Press reported. The country’s Health Ministry earlier identified a possible case in a traveler returning from Mozambique. 

In Germany, the Max von Pettenkofer Institute in Munich said the variant was confirmed in two travelers who arrived from South Africa, DPA reported. Earlier, the Hessian Ministry for Social Affairs said a person who arrived in Frankfurt from South Africa was suspected of having the variant. Germany is “developing a new, precise way of dealing with the current challenges” of coronavirus and the omicron strain, incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted on Saturday, vowing to “do whatever it takes.”

The Czech Republic had its first case, according to a local TV report, a vaccinated individual who returned from Namibia via South Africa and Dubai. Earlier this week, the Czech government tightened social-distancing measures to stem a record spike in Covid-19 cases.

Denmark also has a “reasonable suspicion” it has two cases in passengers arriving from South Africa, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said in a tweet on Saturday. Further tests are being conducted. Health officials in the Netherlands said Saturday that 61 people -- or about one in 10 -- tested positive for Covid-19 after flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Friday. 

Europe’s hospitals are already stretched to capacity in some areas, countries like Austria are back in lockdown or have imposed curfews, and vaccine campaigns have in many instances fallen short of levels thought to create herd immunity. 

In the U.S., Biden administration health adviser Anthony Fauci said Saturday he wouldn’t be surprised if the variant is already in the country but is yet to be detected. “When you have a virus like this, it almost inevitability it is going to go, essentially, all over,” Fauci said on NBC.  

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The World Health Organization on Friday declared the omicron strain a “variant of concern.” Scientists say the variant carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus’s entry into cells in the body. Labs in Europe, the U.S. and Africa are preparing for tests to see how the new variant is likely to behave in people who’ve been vaccinated or previously infected.

Many travelers rushed to catch remaining flights to Europe and beyond before travel bans on several southern African countries were imposed on Friday. For airlines and travel companies, measures to try to contain the latest mutation could throttle the industry’s nascent recovery after some 20 months of assorted restrictions across the globe. 

Addressing Johnson’s plan to mandate expensive PCR tests on all arrivals into the U.K. from Monday, travel body ABTA called the move a “huge blow” for consumers and the industry.