The Omicron XJ variant is thought to have mutations which could allow it to spread more easily and quickly than the BA 2 strain, although there is still limited information on the variant’s ability to evade vaccines and the human immune response.
It is also still unclear if the variant causes more serious disease than previous strains, but experts say there is no evidence it is more dangerous at this stage.
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Just last week, the UK Health Security Agency said there were now more than 600 confirmed cases of ‘Covid XE’ in England, though it has not yet known if it has reached the North West.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that future lockdowns could not be ruled out if another Covid strain was found to be more dangerous and could cause more serious disease.
However, Downing Street has rejected a call by NHS leaders to reintroduce greater mask-wearing and a push to encourage mixing outdoors.
The NHS Confederation urged the government to reconsider its “living with Covid” plan after warning high rates of coronavirus infections are having a “major impact” on the health service, which is facing pressures as it would in a “bad winter” well into spring.
It urged ministers to reinvigorate its public information campaign on Covid, including a renewed focus on mask wearing and encouraging people to meet outdoors and in well-ventilated places whenever possible.
Downing Street rejected the proposals but said that it was “alive to the pressures” that the NHS is facing.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “There is no change to our guidance and our living with Covid plan still stands.
“Thanks to a combination of vaccination and treatment and our better understanding of the virus we are now able to manage it as we do with other respiratory infections, so that remains the case with our approach.
“But obviously we continue to monitor any changes in the behaviour of the virus.”