England will no longer require all people who test positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate for 10 days.
In its latest adjustment of the nation’s pandemic-fighting rules, the United Kingdom government said people in England can stop self-isolating after seven days, three days earlier than previously allowed, if they can produce two negative lateral-flow test results; on the sixth and seventh days.
The devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland are yet to follow England’s lead, and self-isolation periods in those nations remain 10 days long.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the relaxation will allow people, including much-needed National Health Service workers and emergency responders, to return to their jobs and minimize the disruption caused by the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
“I think this is a very sensible, balanced, and proportionate step to take,” the BBC quoted him as saying. “We want to reduce the disruption to people’s everyday lives caused by the pandemic.”
Anyone who has not had the first two novel coronavirus vaccinations will not be allowed to end their self-isolation periods early, he added.
The UK Health Security Agency said the change is in line with medical advice.
Jenny Harries, the agency’s chief executive, said it means transmission of the virus will continue to be disrupted, but “the impact on lives and livelihoods” will be minimized, The Guardian newspaper reported.
The change was announced on the same day that Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the UK will not be locked down during the Christmas period.
He did, however, say more restrictions could be unveiled next week.
With the UK recording 90,629 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, a rise of 52 percent on the same day a week earlier, Johnson said in a video message to the nation the Omicron variant has been spreading “with a speed unlike anything we’ve seen before”.
But he said: “In view of the continuing uncertainty about several things — the severity of Omicron, uncertainty about the hospitalization rate, or the impact of the vaccine rollout, or the boosters — we don’t think today that there is enough evidence to justify any tougher measures before Christmas.”
Many people suspect Johnson will cancel New Year’s Eve celebrations in England, which is something the devolved government in Scotland has already done north of the border.
The Financial Times newspaper said the UK government is expecting a raft of information about the Omicron variant to arrive, any day now, from researchers at Imperial College London, upon which it will base future decisions.
In the meantime, the Reuters news agency said pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has announced it is working with scientists from the University of Oxford on a vaccine tailored for the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, a quest several other vaccine-makers have also embarked upon.
The agency quoted a spokesperson for AstraZeneca as saying: “Together with Oxford University, we have taken preliminary steps in producing an Omicron variant vaccine, in case it is needed.”
The United States pharmaceutical giant Moderna is among frontrunners working on such a vaccine and expects to start clinical trials on one early next year.
Meanwhile, as nations continue to investigate the severity of the fast-spreading variant and work on variant-specific vaccines, several have tightened restrictions in a bid to slow Omicron’s spread.
Germany has announced that, from Dec 28, private gatherings must be attended by no more than 10 people, that nightclubs must close, and soccer matches be played without fans.
Portugal has ordered bars and nightclubs to close from Dec 26, and mandated that people work from home.
France has begun vaccinating children older than 5. And Finland has said bars and restaurants must close from Dec 24.
Sweden has ordered its bars, cafes, and restaurants to only serve seated guests. And the Netherlands has announced the return of a strict national lockdown.
Europe has, so far, had almost 90 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 1.5 million virus-related deaths, according to the European Union’s latest figures.