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  1. The Explainer
29 November 2021

How is the world responding to the new Omicron variant of Covid -19?

Flight bans, booster jabs and mask mandates are back across the world. But will they work?

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Although it was only formally reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday 24 November, the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus has already seen governments across the world take drastic measures to try and stop its spread.

Omicron was officially declared a variant of concern on Friday 26 November by the WHO due to its “concerning” mutations and preliminary testing “suggest[ing] an increased risk of reinfection”.

The variant, believed to have originated in southern Africa, has already been detected in a number of European countries, including Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain and the UK.

Governments in Europe and across the world are taking various steps to combat its spread.

What is Europe doing?

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UK: In an effort to be proactive rather than reactive, at the weekend Boris Johnson announced a number of measures to limit Omicron’s reach.

Flights from certain countries in southern Africa – including Zambia, Angola and South Africa – have been immediately suspended, while all new arrivals to the UK will now have to take a PCR within two days of arriving and will have to self-isolate until they return a negative result.

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Johnson also announced that wearing a face-covering will once again become mandatory on public transport and shops in England from 30 November.

When pressed about the possibility of a Christmas lockdown, the Prime Minister said he “cannot rule anything out” over the coming weeks.

EU: Reports suggest that the bloc is planning to place a uniform ban on flights from southern Africa, but in the meantime, countries within the EU are taking varying approaches to deal with Omicron and rising cases.

France will widen its vaccine booster roll-out programme to everyone over the age of 18, its health minister announced on 25 November, while requirements for face-coverings to be worn in all indoor settings will be reintroduced.

Face masks will also be required in Italy when using public transport.

A number of countries, including France, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia and Portugal are using variations of domestic vaccine passports to, in some cases, limit those who can access certain areas of society and verify people’s vaccination status.

Countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic and Slovakia, among others, have also closed or have limited various areas of non-essential retail and hospitality.

Even before news of the Omicron variant broke, Austria had imposed a national lockdown on 22 November – after initially implementing one only for unvaccinated people – as cases started to surge.

The lockdown is scheduled to last ten days, but there is an option to extend it to 20, said officials. Austrians have taken to the streets to protest the measures.

What about the rest of the world?

The US, shortly after removing the travel restrictions placed on Europe at the beginning of the pandemic, has imposed a ban on travellers coming from southern Africa. But despite the halt to flights, top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned that the Omicron variant would “inevitably” reach the United States.

Israel, widely seen as leaders in the fight against Covid with its advanced vaccine (and booster) roll-out has gone further, banning all foreign nationals from entering for at least the next two weeks. So far, one case of Omicron has been detected in Israel, though reports of several more are being investigated.

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, labelled the bans placed on various countries in the south of Africa as “completely unjustified” and called for their immediate end.

“There is no scientific justification whatsoever for keeping these restrictions in place,” he said in a televised statement. He added that Omicron should act as a wake-up call for Western countries to end vaccine inequality, which many have pinned to the emergence of variants of concern originating from the Global South.

The WHO has opposed the travel bans on Africa, stating that it “place[s] a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods” of those affected.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.

“Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”