The arrival of the Omicron variant means the world is “closer to the start of the pandemic than the end”, one of Britain’s most senior scientists has warned.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust who stepped down as a government adviser last month, hit out at a lack of political leadership over Covid, saying that progress in combatting the virus is “being squandered”.
In an article for the Observer, he said rich countries had been taking “a very blinkered domestic focus, lulled into thinking that the worst of the pandemic was behind us”.
“The longer this virus continues to spread in largely unvaccinated populations globally, the more likely it is that a variant that can overcome our vaccines and treatments will emerge,” he said. “If that happens, we could be close to square one.
“This political drift and lack of leadership is prolonging the pandemic for everyone, with governments unwilling to really address inequitable access to the vaccines, tests and treatment.
“There have been wonderful speeches, warm words, but not the actions needed to ensure fair access to what we know works and would bring the pandemic to a close.”
Sir Jeremy called for urgent action – “wearing masks indoors, increasing testing, social distancing, isolating if positive (with support to do so) and vaccination will all help to drive down transmission and protect against illness.”
Meanwhile the travel industry has reacted with fury after it was announced all passengers arriving in the UK will have to take a Covid pre-departure test amid fears about the spread of the Omicron variant.
Ministers said it was intended to be a temporary measure following new data showing an increase in the number of cases of the new strain linked to foreign travel.
The move, which will be introduced on Tuesday, was welcomed by Labour which has been pressing for the return of pre-departure tests since the variant was first identified in South Africa.
It came as the latest figures from the UK Health Security Agency (HSA) showed as of Saturday, a further 26 cases of the Omicron variant had been reported across the UK – taking the total so far to 160.
The travel sector said the return of pre-departure tests was another “hammer blow” for an industry which was just beginning to pick up again after the devastation wrought by the pandemic.
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said it directly contradicted assurances given by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and he called on the Government to step in and support the sector.
“The introduction of pre-departure testing with little warning is a hammer blow to the business travel industry,” he said.
“Public safety is a priority, but businesses will fail, travellers will be stranded and livelihoods devastated by the lack of coherent plans from Government.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said the rapidly changing measures meant planning was becoming impossible.
“It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data. We don’t have the clinical evidence,” he said.
“These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.”