Sajid Javid – 2021 Statement on Covid-19 and the Omicron Variant

The statement made by Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in the House of Commons on 29 November 2021.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the omicron variant and the steps we are taking to keep our country safe. We have always known that a worrying new variant could be a threat to the progress that we have made as a nation. We are entering the winter in a strong position, thanks to the decisions we made in the summer and the defences we have built. Our vaccination programme has been moving at a blistering pace, and this weekend we reached the milestone of 17 million boosters across the UK. This means that even though cases have been rising, hospital admissions have fallen by a further 11% in the past week and deaths have fallen by 17%.

Just as the vaccination programme has shifted the odds in our favour, a worrying new variant has always had the opportunity to shift them back. Last week, I was alerted to what is now known as the omicron variant, which has now been designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation. We are learning more about this new variant all the time, but the latest indication is that it spreads very rapidly; it may impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments for covid-19, Ronapreve; and, as the chief medical officer said this weekend, there is a reasonable chance that our current vaccines may be impacted.

I can update the House that there have now been five confirmed cases in England and six confirmed cases in Scotland. We expect cases to rise over the coming days. The new variant has been spreading around the world: confirmed cases have been reported in many more countries, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.

In the race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs, so our strategy is to buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists learn more about this potential threat. On Friday, I updated the House on the measures we have put in place, including how, within hours, we had placed six countries in southern Africa on the travel red list. Today, I wish to update the House on more of the balanced and proportionate steps we are taking.

First, we are taking measures at the border to slow the incursion of the variant from abroad. On Saturday, in line with updated advice from the UK Health Security Agency, we acted quickly to add another four countries—Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia—to the travel red list. That means that anyone who is not a UK or Irish national or resident and who has been in any of those countries over the previous 10 days will be refused entry. Those who are allowed entry must isolate in a Government-approved facility for 10 days.

Beyond the red list, we are going further to put in place a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from all around the world. We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after they arrive and to self-isolate until they have received a negative result. The relevant regulations have been laid before the House today and will come into effect at 4 am tomorrow.

Secondly, we have announced measures to slow the spread of the virus here in the UK. We are making changes to our rules on self-isolation for close contacts in England to reflect the greater threat that may be posed by the new variant. Close contacts of anyone who tests positive with a suspected case of omicron must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not. Face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport in England unless an individual has a medical exemption.

The regulations on self-isolation and face coverings have been laid before the House today and will come into force at 4 am tomorrow. I can confirm to the House that there will be a debate and votes on the two measures, to give the House the opportunity to have its say and to perform valuable scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will set out more details shortly. We will review all the measures I have set out today after three weeks to see whether they are still necessary.

Thirdly, we are strengthening the defences we have built against the virus. We are already in a stronger position than we were in when we faced the delta variant: we have a much greater capacity for testing, an enhanced ability for sequencing and the collective protection offered by 114 million jabs in arms. I wish to update the House on our vaccination programme. Our covid-19 vaccination programme has been a national success story. We have delivered more booster doses than anywhere else in Europe and given top-up jabs to more than one in three people over the age of 18 across the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the NHS, the volunteers, the armed forces and everyone else who has been involved in this life-saving work.

Our vaccines remain our best line of defence against this virus in whatever form it attacks us. There is a lot that we do not know about how our vaccines will respond to this new variant, but, although it is possible that they may be less effective, it is highly unlikely that they will have no effectiveness at all against serious disease, so it is really important that we get as many jabs in arms as possible. Over the next few weeks, we were already planning to do 6 million booster jabs in England alone, but against the backdrop of this new variant we want to go further and faster.

I asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the Government’s independent expert advisers on vaccinations, to urgently review how we could expand the programme, and whether we should reduce the gap between second doses and boosters. The JCVI published its advice in the last hour: first, it advised that the minimum dose interval for booster jabs should be halved from six months to three months; secondly, that the booster programme should be expanded to include all remaining adults aged 18 and above; thirdly, that these boosters should be offered by age group in a descending order to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus—priority will be given to older adults and people over 16 who are at risk; fourthly, that severely immunosuppressed people aged 16 or above who have received three primary doses should now also be offered a booster dose; and finally, that children aged between 12 and 15 should be given a second dose 12 weeks from the first dose. I have accepted this advice in full. With this new variant on the offensive, these measures will protect more people more quickly and make us better protected as a nation. It represents a huge step up for our vaccination programme, almost doubling the number of people who will be able to get a booster dose to protect themselves and their loved ones.

I know that we are asking more from NHS colleagues who have already given so much throughout this crisis, but I also know that they will be up to the task. The NHS will be calling people forward at the appropriate time, so that those who are most vulnerable will be prioritised. I will be setting out more details of how we are putting this advice into action in the coming days.

Our fight against this virus is a global effort, so I will update the House on the part that the UK is playing. We currently hold the presidency of the G7, and, earlier today, I convened an urgent meeting of G7 Health Ministers to co-ordinate the international response. We were unanimous in our praise for the leadership shown by South Africa, which was so open and transparent about this new variant. We were resolute in our commitment to working closely with each other, the World Health Organisation and, of course, the wider international community to tackle this common threat.

Our experience of fighting this virus has shown us that it is best to act decisively and swiftly when we see a potential threat, which is why we are building our defences and putting these measures in place without delay. Scientists are working at speed, at home and abroad, to determine whether this variant is more dangerous. I can assure the House that if it emerges that this variant is no more dangerous than the delta variant, we will not keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary. Covid-19 is not going away, which means that we will keep seeing new variants emerge. If we want to live with the virus for the long-term, we must follow the evidence and act in a proportionate and responsible way if a variant has the potential to thwart our progress. As we do that, we are taking a well-rounded view, looking at the impact of these measures not just on the virus, but on the economy, on education, and on non-covid health, such as mental health. I am confident that these balanced and responsible steps are proportionate to the threat that we face.

This year, our nation has come so far down the road of recovery, but we always knew that there would be bumps in the road. This is not a time to waver, but a time to be vigilant and to think about what each and every one of us can do to slow the spread of this new variant—things such as getting a jab when the time comes, following the rules that we have put in place, and getting rapid, regular tests. If we all come together once again, then we can keep this virus at bay and protect the progress that we have made. I commend this statement to the House.