Boris Johnson has been urged to introduce far tougher travel restrictions on travellers from abroad by the first ministers of Scotland and Wales, as six new cases of the Omnicron variant emerged in Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, and Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, also urged Johnson to host an urgent meeting of Cobra, the UK government’s emergency planning committee, to agree a common approach.
Sturgeon said she and Drakeford believed there was a clear need to increase quarantine times and precautionary testing for new arrivals to prevent the variant getting a hold in the UK.
Speaking at an emergency briefing in Edinburgh, Sturgeon said all travellers from abroad should quarantine for eight days and undergo a PCR test on the eighth day, as well as on day two, as is already required.
“The emergence of Omicron poses a potential threat to the UK. It is clear that the strain is already here and that it appears highly transmissible,” Sturgeon and Drakeford told the prime minister in a joint letter.
“We need to work collectively – and effectively – as four nations to take all reasonable steps to control the ingress of the virus to the country and then to limit its spread.
“We are clear that a four nations approach to issues such as border restrictions is the most effective approach. This requires that a meeting of the Cobra committee be held as soon as possible.”
Six cases emerged overnight in Scotland, in Lanarkshire and the greater Glasgow area, tripling the number so far detected in the UK.
Sturgeon confirmed there was evidence those cases were caught in the community since in a few of those cases, the patients had not been overseas or in contact with a recent traveller overseas.
She said so far there were grounds for optimism that the Omicron variant did not lead to more severe symptoms but it was too early to be certain: detailed genomic and epidemiological investigations were under way into its virulence and impacts.
So far, no deaths connected to Omicron have been reported, said Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Gregor Smith, and there was no evidence linking the Scottish outbreak to the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow, which ended two weeks ago.
Earlier, Scotland’s health secretary, Humza Yousaf, said officials would undertake enhanced contact tracing to try to track down the origin of the outbreak, and identify other people the six had been in contact with.
The junior UK health minister Edward Argar told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the news was not unexpected.
He said: “We’ve been clear since we first knew about this new variant that we would expect to see the number of cases rise, and I think what we’re seeing in Scotland reflects that. That’s in the nature of the virus.”
New restrictions are being imposed this week in an attempt to limit the spread of the variant, first identified in South Africa, which scientists fear could be highly transmissible and might evade some vaccine protections.
Ten southern African countries have been placed on the travel red list, while England has reimposed mandatory mask use for public transport, shops, and for secondary school pupils in communal areas, to begin from Tuesday.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said masks should be used more generally when people were mixing indoors, arguing that Boris Johnson’s repeated avoidance of wearing a mask had made encouragement and enforcement more difficult.
“We know the prime minister has undermined his own message in the past, but we need clarity so that people can do the right thing,” she told Sky News.
Rayner also repeated Labour’s calls for a resumption of the previous system of people needing a negative Covid test before, rather than two days after, being allowed to travel to the UK.
She said: “What we’re saying is that people should have a test before they come into the country – wherever they are they should be tested before they come into the United Kingdom.”
Argar reiterated comments on Sunday by Sajid Javid, the health secretary, that ministers were hopeful that what he called “swift, precautionary steps” would mean no extra measures would be needed to combat the new variant.
Asked if the government might tighten up the rules even further in the next three weeks, the period in which the new restrictions are in force, Argar told Sky News: “It’s not something I’m anticipating.” He said he was “looking forward to a Christmas spent with family and friends”.