The first UK cases of the omicron Covid variant were confirmed on Saturday, as ministers planned to impose travel restrictions on further countries where the mutation has been identified.
Two people in Essex and Nottinghamshire have been found to have tested positive for the new variant, with officials carrying out mass testing in affected areas to identify further cases.
The cases, in Brentwood and Nottingham, were identified after overnight genome sequencing. The two individuals who tested positive are being re-tested and told to self-isolate in the meantime, along with all members of their households, while contact tracers track others they may have infected. Officials said the two cases were connected and that there was “a link to travel to Southern Africa.”
Amid warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant, the Government announced that four additional countries were added to the travel red list: Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. This means that flights to and from the countries will be temporarily banned.
Ministers had already suspended all flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid said: "Thanks to our world class genomic sequencing we have been made aware of two UK cases of the omicron variant. We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing.
"We will do all we can to protect the UK public against this emerging threat and that is why we are surging testing capacity to the impacted communities and introducing travel restrictions on a further four countries: Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola. We will not hesitate to take further action if required.
"This is a stark reminder that we are not yet out of this pandemic. Getting the vaccine has never been more important – please come forward for your first jab if you haven't already and if eligible, book your booster as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, the Government is thought to be trying to trackdown more than 9,000 people who have come from South Africa over the last fortnight.
Experts have warned omicron appears to be more transmissible than previous variants , but are trying to establish how effective the vaccine is against it.
On Thursday, ministers banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding nations after the new variant was first identified in the country.
Anyone returning from the affected countries before 4am on Sunday will have to isolate at home and after that time face 10 days' mandatory hotel quarantine.
As concern grows over the new variant, one of the UK's leading Covid experts said omicron was unlikely to "reboot" the pandemic in the UK.
Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday, Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, said the mutations found in omicron indicated the vaccine would still be effective.
He said: "If you look at where most of the mutations are, they are similar to regions of the spike protein that have been seen with other variants so far.
"That tells you that despite mutations existing in other variants, the vaccines have continued to prevent very severe disease as we've moved through alpha, beta, gamma and delta,"
The professor added: "It is extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen."
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