COVID-19: Omicron variant

On 26 November 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, named Omicron, on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).  This decision was based on the evidence that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.

The UK Health Security Agency confirmed on Saturday 27 November 2021 that two English cases of the the Omicron variant had been identified, and as of Monday 29 November, six cases had been identified in Scotland. This post summarizes the legislation and guidance relevant to the United Kingdom and its impact on places of worship.

Ministerial Statements

On 27 November 2021, two statements were issued by the Prime Minister, here and here. The latter set out new measures as Omicron variant identified in UK and confirmed new, temporary measures to respond to emergence of UK cases of the Omicron variant. These indicated that targeted measures would be introduced “from next week” as a precaution to slow down the spread of the variant while more information is gathered. These initial measures are:

  • All international arrivals must take a Day 2 PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
  • All contacts of suspected Omicron cases must self-isolate, regardless of their vaccination status. They will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace.
  • Face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport from next week. All hospitality settings will be exempt.

It was indicated that the new Measures were precautionary, and would be reviewed in three weeks when more detailed information would be available.

On 29 November 2021, The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, gave an oral statement to Parliament on the Omicron variant and the COVID-19 vaccination programme. He indicated that if the scientists decide Omicron poses no greater threat than the Delta variant, compulsory mask wearing in shops and on public transport in England, and the new PCR tests for UK arrivals, would not be retained “for a day longer than necessary”.

He accepted the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice to “accelerate the deployment of Covid-19 vaccines before the peak of any impending Omicron wave”. However, it was reported that Downing Street had rejected a call from the Scottish and Welsh governments for all arrivals in the UK to spend eight days in isolation to reduce the spread of the Omicron variant.

Legislation

England

On Tuesday 30 November 2021, the House of Commons debated the two following SIs, both of which were approved:

  • The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021, SI 2021/1340. here is also an Explanatory Memorandum and Guidance infra. These Regulations require members of the public to wear face coverings whilst inside a relevant place specified in the Regulations, or whilst using public transport (such as buses, trains, the London Underground, trams, aircraft and water taxis) in England, to protect against the risks to public health arising from coronavirus, except in certain limited cases. They also require businesses in places where wearing a face covering is required to display notices giving information about that requirement, and prohibit persons carrying on business in specified locations from preventing anyone from wearing a face covering, except in limited circumstances. [Approved: 434 for, 23 against]
  • The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021, SI 2021/1338 . These Regulations amend the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020 to provide that: (a)where an adult is a close contact of someone who has tested positive for coronavirus and is suspected of, or confirmed as, having an Omicron variant, the exemptions from the duty to self-isolate (for those who are participating in coronavirus related research, fully vaccinated, participating in a clinical vaccine trial, or clinically unable to be vaccinated) do not apply; (b)children who are a close contact of someone who has tested positive for coronavirus and is suspected of, or confirmed as, having an Omicron variant must self-isolate.  [Approved: 431 for, 36 against]

Travel restrictions have already been implemented to slow the spread of the variant and protect the UK’s borders. For England, this is through the

Red List countries include: Botswana; Eswatini; Lesotho; Namibia; South Africa; Zimbabwe; Angola; Malawi; Mozambique; and Zambia. The Guidance Booking and staying in a quarantine hotel if you’ve been in a red list country was updated on 28 November 2021.

Current guidance includes:

Wales

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Omicron variant and the churches

The exemption announced for “all hospitality settings” will retain the status quo on the exclusion from the mandatory wearing of face coverings for acts of worship, weddings and funerals in England; this is also the position elsewhere in the UK. In a Press Release, on 29 November 2021 The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally acknowledges that the Government has outlined the return of compulsory face coverings in shops and on public transport in England and states that the Church

“should also continue to take other public health precautions that, by now, are very familiar, such as regular hand-washing, observing physical distancing and ensuring good ventilation indoor…Meanwhile we are awaiting any new Government regulations and guidance and will update our advice for churches accordingly.”

Whilst the legislation on the wearing of face coverings in churches has not changed, the context in which churches’ guidance is framed is now different as more becomes known about the Omicron variant. At present, decisions on what happens in church settings and at events held in church buildings currently remain with the incumbent (by whatever name called), although the recent Church of England FAQ on the ventilation of buildings becomes particularly relevant. On Tuesday 30 November, the Church issues COVID-19 Opening and managing church buildings, v2.2 to reflect the current situation, as indicated by the earlier statement by the Bishop of London. With regard to vaccine passports, however, it seems unlikely that the Church will take unilateral action.

Post last updated, 1 December 2021 at 14:52.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "COVID-19: Omicron variant" in Law & Religion UK, 30 November 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/11/30/covid-19-omicron-variant/

 

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