COVID-19: Three weeks to assess new Omicron variant – but by then it might be too late

No Plan B. Yet.

For now we can call this plan A+.

Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid say the measures have to be proportionate. They argue that we do not know enough about the Omicron variant. It may be that there’s nothing to worry about as many viruses – once they evolve and mutate – become less dangerous to their hosts.

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This is all correct. But what is also true is that we reacted late to the emerging threat of the Delta variant. With its much greater transmissibility, it spread very quickly to become the dominant variant in the UK.

We are still recording about 40,000 cases a day. It is only thanks to the vaccines that we are not seeing a large number of people in hospital and more deaths.

Compare our measures – face masks and enhanced isolations – to the action taken by the Israeli government.

It has banned all travellers from overseas from entering the country for the next 14 days. So: same variant, but two very different responses.

Have the Israelis over-reacted or are others not doing enough? That is impossible to answer without the data which is still being collected.

The rest of the international community has also been quick to act after the discovery of the Omicron variant.

Some painful lessons have been learned. Remember the several plane loads of passengers that came from India after the discovery of the Delta variant there?

That delay was largely responsible in allowing the variant to seed in the UK.

For now, the only Omicron cases identified – including the three found in England – are all linked to travel from South Africa.

There are no cases of ongoing community transmission.

That might change very soon, though. Staff at a KFC restaurant and the congregation of a church in Essex have been advised to get PCR tests after possibly being exposed to an Omicron positive case.

It is all about slowing the spread.

That is why the government has recognised schools as another setting where infections spread very quickly. All pupils in year seven and above in England must wear face masks in communal areas from Monday.

Again, critics argue that this approach does not go far enough.

Once community transmission of the Omicron variant is established then the government will need to rethink its strategy.

It has given itself three weeks – but by then it might be too late.

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