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Tory ministers must take stronger action against new Covid variant, unions and devolved leaders demand

RAIL and education unions joined devolved leaders in demanding stronger action from Tory ministers today as further cases of Covid-19’s omicron variant were reported in England and Scotland.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons that five cases of the variant had been confirmed in England, up by two from the weekend. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier confirmed that six cases had been found in Scotland, bringing the British total to 11.

To tackle the spread, both governments announced that all people aged 18 and over are to be offered a Covid-19 booster vaccine as part of efforts to tackle the spread of the new variant.

Joint committee on vaccination and immunisation (JCVI) advice has also been amended to reduce the waiting time between second and booster doses of vaccines to three months and expanded vaccination efforts for under-18s. 

The Tories’ decision to implement the advice was welcomed by unions, with the NEU calling it a welcome change of pace. The education union said that “vaccines, ventilation and vigilance” will be key this winter. 

Despite action from ministers, a group of Conservative MPs continued to shun mask-wearing in the Commons today ahead of tougher measures for the public: face coverings are compulsory on public transport and in shops in England from Tuesday. One Tory MP described the use of face coverings as “mumbo jumbo.”

But opposition MPs were more concerned at the government’s slow and muddled response. Shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan said the rules on mask-wearing on transport and in shops should never have been removed, pleading with ministers to extend this to hospitality settings. 

That move was backed by the British Medical Association (BMA), calling for masks to be mandatory in all indoor or enclosed settings.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has undermined the importance of wearing a mask by appearing publicly unmasked on several occasions.

She said that ensuring people have sick pay when they have to self-isolate is “one of the most crucial things we can do” amid the rise of the omicron variant, along with people wearing face coverings, “including the Prime Minister.”

But Mr Johnson rejected a request from First Ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford for tougher travel restrictions and an urgent meeting to tackle the Covid threat.

The leaders of the Scottish and Welsh governments had urged the PM to convene an urgent Cobra meeting to discuss a four-nations approach to issues such as border restrictions.

The pair called for people coming into Britain from overseas to be required to self-isolate for eight days and then take a second PCR test.

They also want Westminster to commit to providing the necessary funding to support businesses if “more interventionist measures are required.”

Their calls were backed by the TSSA, ​​which urged employers to support home working wherever possible as the most effective method to stop transmission. 

The rail union wants Mr Johnson to go further to protect people ahead of Christmas.

General secretary Manuel Cortes said: “If 2020 taught us anything, it is that when Johnson chickens out of taking tough action quickly on coronavirus, we all suffer.

“There’s much we still don’t know about the omicron variant, but we do know how to reduce transmission.

“That’s why we need a return to home working where possible, along with much greater vigilance on face coverings, hygiene and social distancing.”

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said closing schools would be the last possible option in the fight against the new variant. Masks are being recommended in communal areas of England’s secondary schools and colleges, but teaching unions are calling for tougher measures to be implemented.

NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said the number of classrooms that are properly ventilated is still unknown. She said the last thing teachers wanted is more disruption, but a change of course could make a significant difference. 

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