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Live Reporting

Edited by Holly Wallis

All times stated are UK

  1. Thanks for joining us

    That's all from us for now - thanks for joining our live coronavirus coverage, we'll see you soon.

    Your writers today were Alex Kleiderman, Victoria Lindrea and George Wright.

    The live page was edited by Paul Gribben, Kevin Ponniah and Holly Wallis.

  2. What have we learnt from today's press conference?

    As we've reported, Saturday's press conference followed the confirmation of two linked cases of the new Omicron variant in England - one in Brentwood, Essex and one in Nottingham.

    Both cases are connected to travel in southern Africa, and both cases and their households are self-isolating.

    In response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out a number of new measures aimed at slowing the spread of the variant, which scientist fear may be able to, at least partially, escape the vaccine.

    We still have plenty of questions about the changes and when exactly they will be introduced, but here's a roundup of the main points:

    • All travellers entering the UK will now have to take a PCR test within two days of entering the country and will have to self-isolate until a negative test is returned.
    • All those who have been in contact with a person who tests positive for the Omicron variant will have to self-isolate regardless of whether or not they have been vaccinated.
    • Face coverings will once again become compulsory in shops and on public transport in England from next week. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland they are still mandatory on public transport and many indoor areas.
    • Hospitality will be exempt from the rule change on face coverings.
    • The JCVI will explore how the booster programme can be extended, including looking at closing the time gap between the second dose and the booster.
    • Ten countries are now on the UK's travel red list meaning, from Sunday at 04:00 GMT, all arrivals will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days. They are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.

    The PM says the rules will be reviewed in a few weeks, and that he is "absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas" when strict measures were in place.

  3. Analysis: The challenge posed by Omicron

    James Gallagher

    Health and science correspondent, BBC News

    The threat posed by the new variant is not fully understood so that poses a major challenge for the government.

    There is the danger of both under and over reacting to Omicron.

    The issue is that this variant will have the potential to spread in the UK as we have been “running hot”. Cases of Covid have been climbing except for a lull over the October half term. They topped 50,000 in yesterday’s figures and the R number is just above that crucial threshold of one.

    The success of boosters means the number of people needing either hospital treatment or dying is actually falling.

    But it does tell us that the overall package of measures, our behaviour and levels of immunity, are not enough to contain the current Delta variant.

    If Omicron truly does transmit better and partially evade immunity, as some scientists fear, then it too could take off.

    The challenge is nobody had heard of Omicron at the start of the week. Information is flooding in but the key questions of how fast does it spread, how severe is an infection and how well does it escape vaccines are all unanswered.

    The measures announced this evening are aimed at preventing Omicron getting a foothold while scientists work to find the answers.

  4. Rethink needed on anti-viral pills - Whitty

    Another point to pick up from this afternoon's Downing Street press conference was when chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said anti-viral pills for Covid-19, which were approved by the UK earlier this month, needed a "rethink".

    The first pill designed to treat symptomatic Covid was approved by the UK medicines regulator earlier this month.

    "On the anti-virals, we are going to have to do a bit of a rethink on the basis of this new variant just to be confident we've got the right indications from it," Whitty said.

    He said that it was vital to make sure the drugs were used in the "most effective way and for the right people".

  5. Labour 'broadly supportive' of government action

    Shadow public health minister Alex Norris has welcomed the government's response to the new variant.

    "We are broadly supportive of what has been planned today," he told BBC News.

    But he said compulsory mask-wearing should never have been stopped in the first place.

    "The government's Plan B has always been our Plan A," he said.

    The MP added that Labour was keen to see the government "go further on booster jabs" and have all over-40s in the UK boosted by Christmas.

    "We need to get on the front foot and really improve the programme."

  6. Sadiq Khan welcomes new mask rules

    Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has welcomed the government's decision to impose tighter restrictions on face masks.

    "Today's announcement that face coverings will be compulsory on public transport nationwide, as they already are across TfL, is welcome," Khan tweeted.

    "Evidence shows they help stop the virus spreading, and this is a measure I've repeatedly urged the government to take."

  7. UK records 39,567 new cases

    UK Covid cases

    The UK has recorded a further 39,567 new Covid cases, official statistics show.

    Another 131 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test were also reported.

  8. How quickly could we get new vaccines against variants?

    Michelle Roberts

    Health editor, BBC News online

    Updated versions of vaccines against Covid variants are already being designed and tested, in case they are needed at some point.

    Should that time arrive, a new vaccine could be ready within weeks, to run checks on.

    Manufacturers could scale up production quickly too and regulators have already discussed how to fast track the approval process.

    No corners would be cut, but the whole process - from design to approval - could be much faster than when Covid vaccines were first launched.

  9. 'This is Plan B-lite'

    Speaking to the BBC straight after Boris Johnson's press conference, Prof Susan Michie, an expert in health psychology and a member of the government's Sage advisory committee, said the measures should have gone further.

    She said an "absolute cornerstone of pandemic management is you go quickly, you don't wait until you know everything".

    She added that you must always be "ahead of the curve" in any pandemic.

    "We must learn the lessons from mistakes we've made in the past."

    "I have to say, this is Plan B-lite, what we should've had was Plan B-plus".

    Michie said what the government is recommending is less than what Sage was suggesting in September, before the new variant.

    That included working from home when you can and face coverings without qualifications. She suggested that places where people cannot smoke should require face coverings.

    Read more here on the government's Plan B, which would come into place if the NHS came under "unsustainable pressure" in England.

  10. Mask compliance will be harder now - Labour's Burnham

    Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, has welcomed the government's decision to make face coverings mandatory in shops and on public transport, but tweeted that they should never have been relaxed so early in England.

    "It will now be harder, and take longer, to get levels of compliance up to where we need them to be," Burnham wrote on Twitter.

    The temporary re-imposition of face masks is just one of a number of measures announced by the government in a bid to limit the spread of the recently detected Omicron variant.

    Currently face masks will not be compulsory in hospitality settings, such as pubs and restaurants.

    View more on twitter
  11. Chris Whitty: Raise a glass to scientists this Christmas

    What this Christmas might look like will be on many people's minds.

    But at the briefing just now, Professor Chris Whitty also made a plea for the country to "raise a glass" this festive season to the scientists who have produced the vaccines.

    It comes after the prime minister insisted this Christmas would be better than 2020, despite fears over the spread of the Omicron variant and the introduction of some new restrictions.

    Quote Message: If I can make one Christmas plea? It would be that when people raise their glasses this Christmas, they do so to the extraordinary scientists who produce the vaccines, the diagnostics, the drugs which will allow this Christmas, if possible, to be in a very different place to what it would have been without them." from Chris Whitty Chief Medical Officer for England
    Chris WhittyChief Medical Officer for England
  12. Analysis

    Not full Plan B but government is trying to buy time

    Hugh Pym

    BBC News Health Editor

    Cases of the new variant appearing in the UK were inevitable.

    What was not inevitable was the government’s response, moving swiftly to tighten rules for those arriving in the country and for the wearing of face coverings in shops and on public transport in England.

    In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland face coverings are already mandatory on public transport and in some indoor settings. So why not the full Plan B for England with requirements to work from home and the use of vaccine passports in some settings?

    The prime minister’s answer was that more work was needed to determine how rapidly the variant spreads and how effective the vaccines might be – hence the focus on trying to stop cases coming into the UK but holding off on a wider range of domestic restrictions.

    In effect the government is trying to buy time with a review in three weeks, relying on the booster programme to increase immunity while data on Omicron is analysed.

    It will hope that the worst fears about the spread of the variants are not realised. There is always the risk, though, that the latest set of measures don’t go far enough.

  13. Vaccine tweaks can happen quickly - Vallance

    Answering a question earlier, Prof Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said booster jabs would give greater protection against the new variant, as would built-up immunity in the community.

    "Whether there is more needed, we will have to see," he added.

    Asked about the ease of updating vaccines to tackle Omicron, he pointed to the fact that some pharmaceutical companies have already said they could tweak current vaccines and have new versions ready within 100 days.

    He also echoed one of Johnson's earlier remarks, saying the spread of the variant could be delayed by further restrictions, but "you won't stop it".

  14. This Christmas will be better than the last - Johnson

    Iain Watson from the BBC asked the PM if we were seeing the beginning of new restrictions and if the prime minister was confident about whether people could go ahead with their Christmas plans.

    Johnson said different variants required different approaches but we do not know enough yet about the new variant.

    Overall the UK "continues to be in a far stronger position" than many other countries, he insisted.

    He added that he was "absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas".

    "That will do for the time-being on that one."

    Video content

    Video caption: Watch the BBC's Iain Watson ask the prime minister whether people can keep their Christmas plans
  15. Why is the government so concerned? Watch Chris Whitty explain

    England's chief medical officer earlier used this briefing to illustrate what scientists know so far about Omicron that's causing them to be worried. Here's the clip so you can watch it back for yourselves.

    Video content

    Video caption: Covid variant: Chris Witty on why scientists are concerned about new Covid variant
  16. Analysis

    Current jabs should still provide some protection

    Michelle Roberts

    Health editor, BBC News online

    We've just heard the government plans to speed up the booster jab campaign.

    Experts are also being asked to evaluate whether more people could be invited for a booster jab to top up their immunity against coronavirus, given the arrival of the new Omicron variant.

    Although our current vaccines are not a perfect match for this highly mutated new type of Covid, they should still provide some protection.

    Vaccines are very effective at saving lives by cutting the risk of severe illness against other major Covid variants, including Delta which is still the dominant one circulating in the UK.

    In the UK at the moment, booster jabs are being offered to:

    • Over-40s
    • Frontline health and social care workers
    • Older adults in residential care homes
    • People aged 16-49 years old with underlying health conditions which put them at greater risk of severe Covid
    • Adults who share a household with vulnerable people

    More than 16m booster or third doses have been given so far.

  17. Analysis

    This is not a full Plan B

    Nick Eardley

    Political correspondent

    For the last few months, we’ve got used to restrictions being lifted.

    But the level of uncertainty and concern in government is such that we are seeing some being brought back in England.

    This isn’t the full Plan B ministers were keeping in reserve.

    Face coverings will become mandatory again on transport and in shops – but not in hospitality.

    England is not moving to introduce vaccine passports or call for home working, as other parts of the UK have.

    But we are seeing new measures designed to limit the spread of the new variant.

    People travelling into the UK will again have to take a PCR test and self-isolate until they get a negative test.

    And everyone who comes into contact with a positive case of Omicron will have to self-isolate – even if they’ve had both vaccine doses.

    The UK government has made clear it didn’t want to introduce these measures. But the new variant has forced its hand.

  18. Vital people get their booster jabs, Johnson says

    Johnson has said it is vital that people get their booster jabs.

    "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," he says.

    "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.

    He adds that the government will "boost the booster campaign" from today, with plans for 6 million jabs in the next three weeks.

  19. BreakingKey points: What's been announced?

    The PM has set out a number of new measures to be introduced in England, in response to the new Omicron variant of concern:

    • All travellers to the UK will have to take a PCR test by the end of day 2 of their arrival; travellers must self-isolate until they receive a negative test result
    • All contacts of suspected Omicron cases must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status. They will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace
    • Face coverings will become compulsory on public transport and in shops - not including hospitality
    • The JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) will consider giving boosters to a wider age group, as well as reducing the gap between the second dose and booster.
  20. Face masks likely to be mandatory again in shops and on transport

    Nick Martin of Sky asks whether face coverings will be mandatory in all indoor spaces.

    The PM says the government is looking at making masks mandatory in shops and on transport, but says the details will be set out by Health Secretary Sajid Javid early next week.

    The reporter asks whether the potential spread of the new variant has been modelled by scientists and if we can rule out further lockdowns.

    Prof Vallance says South African scientists have been "absolutely brilliant" at sharing information - but it will take time to gather all the facts.

    "If it's very transmissible and does cause big [vaccine] escape clearly that's a major issue."