The spread of the Omicron variant in the UK is a “reminder that no one is safe until all of us are safe”, Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan has declared this afternoon as the government prepares to introduce stricter public health restrictions.
Addressing parliament after Sajid Javid gave a statement on the new strain, first identified in the UK over the weekend, the junior shadow health minister described the spread of the variant as a “wake-up call”.
She called on the government to “act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay” at home, while also accusing ministers of failing to meet commitments made at the G7 summit this summer to distribute vaccines across the globe.
Her comments followed confirmation on Sunday evening that three cases of the Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa but since found in countries across the world, had been found in England. Six more cases have been found in Scotland today, along with another two in England.
They also follow a promise from Boris Johnson in June that the UK and other G7 countries would surplus vaccines to immunise the world. A December target of 40% vaccination for the 92 poorest countries was set at a summit in September.
Experts have said the target is unlikely to be met in at least 82 of these nations. The US had, which has been responsible for half the vaccines donated, last week delivered just 25% of the vaccines that it had pledged to provide.
Conservative MP and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also criticised global vaccine distribution, describing the discrepancy between the proportion of people vaccinated in richer and poorer countries as a “moral and practical failure”.
“The fact that we are facing this danger is also a symptom of a failure of western countries to make sure that vaccines are distributed adequately around the world,” the chair of the health and social care select committee said.
Javid argued that the UK can “be proud” of the donations it has made, but conceded: “We do need other countries to go further… In the meeting of health ministers I chaired earlier we all agreed on the importance of this.”
The Health Secretary accused Allin-Khan, who continued to work as a doctor during the height of the pandemic, of having “misjudged the tone of the House” as he urged the opposition party to work collaboratively with the government.
Javid told the Commons during his statement on the variant that if Omicron proves to be “no more dangerous” than the Delta strain, then the government would not “keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary”.
But he warned that Covid may have “extra legs” in the race with vaccines and that the government strategy is to “buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists learn more about this potential threat”.
The government has reintroduced a two-day test requirement for new arrivals into the country in response to Omicron. It has also added ten African countries to its red list. Allin-Khan asked Javid today why ministers have not introduced pre-departure testing to stop people with Covid travelling to the UK.
Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon jointly called for tougher travel rules in a letter to Johnson this morning, also urging him to convene a COBRA meeting “as soon as possible” to coordinate a four-nation response to the spread of the variant.
Allin-Khan welcomed the move to reintroduce mask wearing in shops and on public transport but added: “We believe this never should have been abandoned in the first place. Keeping masks in place would always have been our plan A.”
She urged Javid to extend the use of masks to hospitality and other settings, and asked how ministers would ensure that the use of face coverings would be enforced in shops without placing further pressure on frontline retail staff.
The junior shadow health minister this afternoon accused the government of “flip-flopping” over mask wearing, and said that the resulting uncertainty has “created confusion across schools, colleges and universities”.
Allin-Khan also used her speech to the Commons today to highlight the large number of Conservative MPs not wearing masks and the Prime Minister’s own refusal to wear a face covering while visiting a hospital.
“The Prime Minister is not the best person to be telling people to wear masks when he can’t even be bothered to wear one himself when he goes into a hospital full of vulnerable patients. And can I ask the Secretary of State when Conservative backbenchers will start wearing their masks?” she asked.