Over the past 72 hours you will have seen and heard a great deal in the news about a variant of the COVID-19 virus that is causing concern. The name of the variant is omicron. It was first detected in South Africa, with news first emerging on Wednesday.
Despite rapid action by governments around the world to prevent the spread of omicron – primarily through travel bans – cases have quickly emerged across the globe, including three cases in the United Kingdom.
We are currently aware of 22 individuals who have travelled to the Island and were in southern Africa in the past 10 days. All 22 people have been contacted and those still on the Island have agreed to undergo testing. The tests results we have so far received back are all negative for COVID-19.
New COVID variants have always been a concern and something governments and public health agencies around the world have been monitoring very closely since the pandemic began.
New variants come about from natural mutations of the COVID-19 virus. These mutations can affect how transmissible the virus is; how likely someone is to become seriously ill; and – crucially – how effective the current COVID-19 vaccines are in offering protection. We have seen this already during the pandemic with the delta variant becoming dominant over the alpha, beta and gamma variants.
We have always said that the emergence of a new mutation could be a potential trigger point, meaning we may have to act and take steps to protect our community.
There is still much we do not know about the omicron variant, the most crucial is that question about how effective the vaccine will be in offering us protection. The greatest concern is that the virus has mutated to such an extent that our immune systems, trained by the vaccine, no longer recognise the virus and no longer trigger an immune response. This sort of variant is know as a ‘vaccine escape’ variant.
Early evidence suggests there may be a higher re-infection risk with omicron, but there is still so much we do not know.
This morning I convened a meeting of the National COVID Response Group, followed by a meeting of the Council of Ministers. We discussed developments around the globe in response to omicron, particularly the UK, examined the limited but growing evidence available, and considered what potential measures we may need to bring in here on the Island to protect our community.
It was clear that whilst there are still so many unknowns about omicron, it appears to have a large number of mutations, which is a concern. It may be several weeks before scientists have the answers we need on the exact nature of the threat this variant poses.
Despite this, the Council of Ministers was mindful of the need for a proportionate response.
We have determined that, given the uncertainty surrounding this new variant, we should now raise the Island to a heightened state of awareness. We will also introduce some new measures for the greater protection of public health on the Island whist the proper assessments are being made of omicron.
As omicron has not yet been detected on the Island, we assess the greatest risk at present to be from those arriving on our shores. Therefore, there are two important policy changes that the Council of Ministers are supporting:
All international travellers who are fully vaccinated arriving from outside the Common Travel Area – that is anywhere outside of the UK, Ireland, Jersey and Guernsey – must self-isolate and have a PCR test within 48 hours of arriving in the Isle of Man. They must remain in self isolation until they have received the result back. If they are not fully vaccinated they will still be required to undergo the 7 day isolation period.
All travellers from within the Common Travel Area, regardless of their vaccination status will have to commit to undertaking a Lateral Flow Test within 12 hours of arrival in the Isle of Man. All arrivals from within the Common Travel Area will be required to make a clear statement as to their intent and understanding of this new testing requirement on their landing form and we will develop a facility for them to let us know when they have done so.
These measures will come into force from 4am on Tuesday 30 November.
These two measures should act as an additional barrier to entry of COVID and particularly omicron – but we must now also take further measures as a community to help mitigate against unwarranted effects as it remains likely the omicron will arrive on the Island sooner rather than later.
Earlier this month I set out a COVID-19 Winter Framework for the Island, which established three alert levels and introduced varying levels of likely response from the Government.
I am today confirming that we are raising our status from Level 1 to Alert Level 2. This means that we are increasing the ask for national mitigations.
I can therefore to tell you that from 4am on Tuesday morning it will be mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport – including on the ferry and aircraft – and in all health and social care settings. Indeed we would ask everyone to take steps to adhere to this immediately.
In other settings, particularly retail premises such as shops and lifestyle settings and in schools, the Government is now expecting everyone to wear a mask. We do not want to make the non-wearing of masks a criminal offence but we will legislate further if we need to. For now we ask everyone to wear them in these indoor public settings. Like the UK we will not be insisting on further measures in hospitality.
And of course Level 2 means we are asking everyone to increase their use of self-tests - especially before attending events or gatherings.
Finally, there will be a change in our position around positive PCR test results that are suspected or confirmed as omicron. In these instances the whole household must immediately isolate for ten days.
These measures are a proportionate, realistic, and targeted response to identify and mitigate against omicron until we know more about the variant, which I hope will we will have in the next three or four weeks.
It is my hope that these measures will be successful and that the Island will work together as a community to undertake the right level of preventative measures to mitigate against a rapid spread of this variant.
However, we are prepared to go to a further and harder with legally enforceable measures if they are needed for the greater protection of public health.
Finally, I want to talk briefly about the vaccine programme.
In the coming days we can expect to see a significant ramping up of the booster programme in the UK, which we are likely to follow.
Vaccines still offer the best possible protection against COVID-19 and it is thanks to them that we have been able to return to relative normality. We do not yet know how effective the current vaccines will be against omicron, but ensuring our population has the highest level of protection against COVID will help prepare us for a new variant or another wave of infection.
There will be more on this in the coming days, but the message is simple. Please take up the offer of a vaccine or a booster when you are contacted. It is the best step you can take to protect yourself, protect your loved ones, and protect your community.