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Mandatory PCR tests and self-isolation for all arrivals in Northern Ireland

Belfast health chiefs move quickly as new variant is discovered in Britain

Northern Ireland is to introduce new PCR testing and self-isolation requirements for new arrivals after the emergence of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 in England yesterday.

Anyone arriving in the region will be asked to take a PCR test for Covid-19 on the second day and must self-isolate until they provide a negative result after the new “concerning” strain was discovered in Nottingham and Essex.

In a statement last night, Northern Ireland chief medical officer Professor Sir Michael McBride confirmed it is the Department of Health’s intention to align Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK on PCR testing and self-isolation requirements for new arrivals.

“While it is highly likely that there will be cases of the variant in Northern Ireland at some point it is essential that preventative measures are taken to delay and/or reduce its incursion,” he said.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Mr McBride described the new variant as a “serious and concerning development” and spent much of the weekend discussing it with his counterparts in the UK and the Republic.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann is said to be in constant contact with his counterpart in the Republic, Stephen Donnelly, about the ever-changing picture.

Mr Swann has also been briefing Stormont Ministers on actions his Department are taking to “reduce and delay” the impact of the Omicron should it reach here, including adding additional countries to the red list in line with the UK and a push on the vaccination programme.

Malawi and Mozambique were added to the NI red list on November 26 while Angola and Zambia will be included from 4am today. They join South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini already on the list.

It is understood there are three main areas of concern for Stormont’s health officials if the new variant is problematic: the effectiveness of the vaccine, the clinical impact on the region’s already pressurised hospitals and its transmissibility.

Almost three million vaccinations have been administered to the public here in the form of first, second and in some cases third vaccines or boosters. More than 100,000 people were tested for the disease in the past week.

It is hoped such readiness will help in the fight against the latest variant.

However, Northern Ireland still has the highest infection rate in the UK or Ireland and the lowest vaccination rate, though the numbers of people in hospital with the virus are decreasing slowly.

Mid Ulster; Mid and East Antrim; Antrim and Newtownabbey; and Causeway Coast and Glens have had notably high infection rates of above 700 cases per 100,000 population.

There was some optimism yesterday when a scientist behind the Oxford vaccination spoke favourably that the existing vaccines will be effective against Omicron and that it is “extremely unlikely” that it will cause a “reboot” of the pandemic — a sentiment echoed by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

Professor Andrew Pollard, who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said experts would need to wait “several weeks” for confirmation but said existing jabs could still be effective at presenting serious illness.

As well as the UK, several cases of the

variant have been identified in Belgium, Germany, the Czech republic, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

More than 60 people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid. Dutch authorities are trying to establish whether the passengers have the new variant.

The World Health Organisation has said the variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection.

However, little is known about it, specifically whether it will escape vaccines.

In the Republic, scientists have begun analysing data taken from samples dating to the start of November at its Backweston facility for markers of the new variant.

Yesterday, Cillian De Gascún, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said he hopes to have preliminary data tomorrow on whether the new variant has been detected in Ireland.

Dr De Gascún said he was concerned about the new variant, but that it was too early to tell how prevalent it could become. He said there was no evidence yet that it would evade vaccines or cause more severe disease.

However, he added, information emerging from South Africa suggests it is even more transmissible.

Mr Martin said the new restrictions coupled with the booster vaccine campaign will ensure “intergenerational engagement that will happen around Christmas time will be less hazardous for the vulnerable”.

However, the Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon said he expects the Government to have “robust plans” to protect access to school, education support and social interaction.

“We are approaching the third calendar year of this pandemic and there are still challenging times ahead,” he said.

Meanwhile, the new Covid certification scheme here in Northern Ireland will not be mandatory in unlicensed premises “at this stage”, the Department of Health has said.

Under the policy, which will be introduced in draft form tomorrow, people wishing to gain entry to designated venues will need to demonstrate evidence of Covid-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test result or proof of infection in the previous six months.

But such a scheme would require Assembly approval.

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