Covid Live Updates: U.K., Germany and Italy Confirm Omicron Cases

ImagePassengers awaiting Covid test results in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, in an image shared on social media on Saturday
Credit…Social Media Photo Obtained By Reuters

As more countries placed travel bans on southern Africa early Saturday for fear of a new and possibly more dangerous variant of the coronavirus, the passengers on two flights from South Africa found themselves caught in a pandemic nightmare.

After about 30 hours squeezed together in the planes, crammed buses and then in waiting rooms, 61 of the more than 500 passengers on those flights had tested positive and been quarantined. They were being checked for Omicron, named by the World Health Organization just on Friday as a “variant of concern,” its most serious category.

Everyone else, according to Stephanie Nolen, The New York Times’s global health reporter, who was on one of the planes, “has scattered to the world.”

The chaos in Amsterdam seemed emblematic of the varied, and often scattershot, responses to the virus across the world, with masking rules, national testing requirements and vaccine mandates differing from country to country and continent to continent. (KLM, the airline operating the flights, said that only some passengers had to show proof of a recent negative test, depending on vaccination status and the requirements of their final destination.)

Such gaps could open avenues for contagion, especially for a potentially threatening new variant.

“That number of people seems like a very high number to have this happen,” said Andrew Pekosz, an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.Unless there’s really tremendous amounts of spread of this virus locally that was not detected.”

The Omicron variant is likely to be found in some of those 61 passengers who tested positive, Dutch public health officials announced on Saturday. The sequencing is still being performed by the Dutch agency for disease control and prevention. It was unclear how many passengers may have tested positive for the variant.

Those who tested positive for the coronavirus at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Friday have been transferred to quarantine hotels. Those who tested negative could continue their journey or, if the Netherlands was their final destination, were told to quarantine at home.

The government is also telling thousands of people who have returned from southern Africa in the last few days to get tested, even if they don’t have symptoms.

There is still relatively little known about Omicron. It has mutations that scientists fear could make it more infectious and less susceptible to vaccines — though neither of these effects is yet to be established.

On Saturday, fear of Omicron arrived nonetheless, as officials in Britain reported two cases of the variant, and Germany and the Czech Republic investigated suspected cases.

The numbers of confirmed cases outside southern Africa remain small, but there are worries the virus could have spread more widely before scientists there discovered it.

“It would be irresponsible” not to be worried about the new variant, Roberto Speranza, the health minister of Italy, the first European Union nation to block flights from southern Africa, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday. “It’s a new and worrying element.”

After the initial shock of the discovery of a case of the Omicron variant in Europe on Friday in Belgium, European leaders, already struggling with a surge in cases that has made it once again the epicenter of the pandemic, tried to strike a balance between increasing caution and avoiding panic. But the virus would not cooperate.

On Friday evening, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said on Twitter that she held “fruitful” conversations with the pharmaceutical companies and that they “explained their efforts to quickly and thoroughly understand the Omicron variant and adjust our strategies accordingly. Time is of the essence.”

The union acted with rare unity in response to the threat posed by the new variant, binding together to restrict travel to and from southern Africa.

Vivian Loonela, a spokeswoman for the commission, said Saturday that “member states agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the E.U. from seven countries in the southern Africa region — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe.”

Mr. Speranza, Italy’s health minister, told Corriere della Sera that he considered it wise “to activate the emergency brake,” adding, the “European coordination on these decisions is fundamental.”

One of Mr. Speranza’s main criticisms during the first wave of the virus back in 2020 was that Italy was left alone, and that France and Britain and other countries did not act to ban flights from China as Italy did in January of that year.

He said the strategy of the government, to promote vaccinations through a strict health pass that was required to work and participate in much of society, would not change. The government’s message remained the same, vaccines — and now boosters — were the only way out of the pandemic.

Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reporting.




Boris Johnson Reimposes U.K. Mask Mandate Over Omicron Cases

After two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant were confirmed in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said masks would be required in stores and on public transportation and listed testing guidelines for travelers from abroad.

Wednesday, we received news of a new variant, the so-called Omicron variant. This variant is spreading around the world, with two cases so far identified here in the U.K. As always — I must stress this — as always with a new variant, there are many things that we just cannot know at this early stage, but our scientists are learning more hour by hour, and it does appear that Omicron spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people who are double vaccinated. But we now need to go further and implement a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from across the whole world. So we’re not going to stop people traveling — I want to stress that, we’re not going to stop people traveling — but we will require anyone who enters the U.K. to take a P.C.R. test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result. In addition to the measures we’re already taking to locate those who have been in countries of concern over the last 10 days, we will require all contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of Omicron to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of your vaccination status. We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport. We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against Omicron, but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection. And if you’re boosted, your response is likely to be stronger. So it’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible. The measures that we’re taking today, including on our borders and on face masks, are temporary and precautionary, and we will review them in three weeks. At that point, we should have much greater information about the continuing effectiveness of our vaccines.

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After two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant were confirmed in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said masks would be required in stores and on public transportation and listed testing guidelines for travelers from abroad.

As the world scrambled to prevent the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant that was first detected in southern Africa, Britain’s Health Security Agency confirmed on Saturday that two cases of the variant had been recorded in the country.

In a news conference on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that to curb the spread of the variant, face masks would be required in stores and on public transportation, a rule the country had ended in July.

“As always, I must stress this, with a new variant there are many things we just cannot know at this early stage,” Mr. Johnson said.

“It does appear that Omicron spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people who are double vaccinated,” he added. Although the science around Omicron is still new, it is a “very extensive mutation” of previous configurations of the virus that could reduce vaccine effectiveness, Mr. Johnson said.

The cases are said to be linked to travel in southern Africa, the British government confirmed in a statement. Sajid Javid, Britain’s health secretary, described the new cases as a “stark reminder” that the pandemic was not yet over.

“Thanks to our…

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