The Daily Telegraph

Whitty: new variant less worrying than delta

Chief Medical Officer urges calm in face of warnings around omicron mutation

- By Laura Donnelly, Sarah Knapton and Paul Nuki

THE delta variant is of greater concern to the UK than the new omicron Covid mutation, Prof Chris Whitty has said, amid rising internatio­nal fears.

The Chief Medical Officer said ministers were right to take “precaution­ary” border measures to slow down the arrival of the new variant.

But he warned that any attempt to impose “more muscular restrictio­ns” could lose public support and suggested that concern was best focused on more immediate threats.

It came after Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, told the House of Commons that the new variant “may pose a substantia­l risk to public health” and that “early indication­s show this variant may be more transmissi­ble than the delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it”.

Billions were wiped off shares across the world’s markets. The FTSE 100 fell 3.6 per cent, its biggest slide in more than a year, knocking £72billion off the value of Britain’s blue-chip stocks.

IAG, the owner of British Airways, was the biggest victim as the UK and Europe imposed travel restrictio­ns on South Africa, where the variant was first identified, and other southern African nations. The company’s shares dropped 15 per cent.

European markets suffered even worse damage as soaring case numbers and low vaccinatio­n rates fuelled fears that other nations will be forced to follow Austria into full lockdown. Germany’s Dax closed down 4.2 per cent, while the Cac 40 in Paris was the worst performer among the major markets, falling 4.8 per cent.

Last night the US also imposed travel restrictio­ns, with arrivals from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini (Swaziland), Mozambique, and Malawi banned from Monday, apart from US residents and citizens.

As cases were identified in Israel and Belgium, the World Health Organisati­on designated B.1.1.529 a variant of concern and gave it the name omicron.

However, a number of experts sought to reassure the public, with one Oxford scientist saying the new variant was “not doomsday”.

Prof Whitty said he was more concerned about the risks posed by earlier variants, describing the delta epidemic as “undoubtedl­y the principal thing we need to concern ourselves with between now and Christmas”.

He told a Local Government Associatio­n panel discussion: “We’ve always known that new variants would crop up from time to time … but there’s an awful lot we don’t know and I think it’s probably not terribly helpful to speculate.”

However, Prof Whitty struck a note of caution, as some scientists called for Britain to embark on the Government’s “plan B” of winter restrictio­ns.

“My greatest worry at the moment is that if we need to do something more muscular ... at some point, whether it’s for the current new variant or at some later stage, can we still take people with us?” he said.

Sir John Bell, one of the Government’s most senior advisers on vaccines, said the new variant may end up causing no more than “runny noses and headaches” in those who have been vaccinated.

Sir John, the regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, said that while the new variant might evade antibodies, it would be less likely to

escape T-cells and other parts of the immune system that provide broader protection.

“You could still have a highly infectious virus that scoots around and causes lots of trouble, but causes lots of runny noses and headaches [and] doesn’t put people into hospital ... honestly, you could live with that, I think,” Sir John said.

Yesterday the chairman of the South African Medical Associatio­n described the travel restrictio­ns as “hasty” and the situation as “a storm in a teacup”. Dr Angelique Coetzee questioned why everyone was “up in arms”, saying: “So far what we have seen is very mild cases.”

Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the advent of vaccines and new treatments for Covid meant the developmen­ts were “bad news, but not doomsday”.

Experts said South Africa could be faring worse because of low vaccine uptake in the country, with only 24 per cent of citizens fully dosed.

Although little is known about the vaccinatio­n status of the people in South Africa diagnosed with the omicron variant, the infected woman in Belgium had not been jabbed. No cases have yet been detected in Britain, but scientists have said that border controls were only likely to “buy time”.

Last night, government advisers called for new domestic restrictio­ns to be brought in to help limit any potential spread.

Prof Sharon Peacock, the director of COG-UK, which is monitoring new variants for the Government, said: “There are two approaches to what happens next: wait for more scientific evidence – or act now and row back later if it wasn’t required.

“I believe that it is better to ‘go hard, go early and go fast’ and apologise if mistaken.”

Prof Susan Michie, from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencie­s, called for immediate restrictio­ns, including encouragin­g everyone to work from home where possible.

Mr Javid confirmed the Government was still following “plan A” for managing Covid-19 this autumn and winter but warned that “if we need to go further, we will”.

A senior government source said the action to put six countries on the red list came from “an abundance of caution”.

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