The Omicron coronavirus variant is “already everywhere” and travel bans will not stop its spread, the World Health Organization’s top Europe official has said, as the archbishop of Canterbury called for the scrapping of a “travel apartheid”.
As mounting numbers of cases are detected and evidence suggests the Omicron variant transmits faster than Delta, 43 countries in the European region have imposed travel restrictions.
But Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said bans on incoming flights did not work and were too late “because Omicron is already everywhere”. “Omicron is in sight and on the rise and we are right to be concerned and cautious,” he said. At the same time, he added, vaccines, masks, ventilation and treatments were the best way to curb coronavirus – not travel restrictions.
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, also backed calls to scrap travel restrictions amid criticism of the UK’s red list ban of 11 African countries, adding that sharing vaccines with other countries was “the only route out of this pandemic”.
Writing on Twitter, Welby said: “We must find fair and effective approaches for those who are vaccinated and tested to enter the UK. I agree with the Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK – we cannot have ‘travel apartheid’.
“It is also morally wrong – and self-defeating – effectively to punish other nations for being transparent when they discover new Covid variants.”
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Kluge said the evidence so far on Omicron was preliminary and there was no definitive evidence on how well vaccines would protect people. “It has yet to be seen how and whether the latest Covid-19 variant of concern, Omicron, will be more transmissible and more severe,” he said.
He said there were “five pandemic stabilisers to keep mortality down”. They were increasing vaccination rates; administering boosters to the most vulnerable; doubling mask-wearing rates indoors; ventilating crowded spaces; and adopting “rigorous therapeutic protocols for severe cases”.
Kluge said there was a need to avoid both school closures and home learning. He also said that, as school holidays approached, “we must acknowledge that children contaminate their parents and grandparents at home, with a 10-times increased risk for these adults to develop severe disease, be hospitalised or die when non-vaccinated”.
He said: “The use of masks and ventilation, and regular testing, should be a standard at all primary schools and vaccinating children should be discussed and considered nationally, as part of school protection measures.
“Vaccination of younger children not only reduces their role in Covid-19 transmission but also protects them from paediatric severity, whether associated with long Covid or multi-system inflammatory syndromes.”
Kluge also said vaccines should only be mandated at a population level as a last resort, adding that whatever measures countries were taking against Delta would also provide benefit against Omicron.
Dr Catherine Smallwood, a senior emergency officer at the WHO regional office for Europe, said that although travel bans “may be easily accessible in terms of political decision-making, they are not effective in preventing spread of disease”.
Smallwood said Delta remained dominant at the moment but that might change. “Clearly Omicron has demonstrated an ability to spread rapidly within a Delta context and within our highly vaccinated context, particularly in gatherings where Covid-19 likes to spread anyway, so Christmas parties, workplace gatherings, conferences – we’ve seen these clusters of Omicron appear in countries across the region.
“So there will be further spread. The extent and the rapidity of the speed of that spread is still a question and we’ll find out in a few more weeks.”