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Gibraltar takes precautions amid international concern over new Covid-19 strain

The latest shipment of Covid-19 vaccines arrived in Gibraltar on Saturday on board an RAF flight and against the backdrop of international conncern over a new variant of the virus.

Gibraltar is closely monitoring developments related to a new strain of Covid-19 that has triggered worldwide concern amid fears it may be more transmissible than existing variants and could evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.

The Omicron strain was first detected in South Africa earlier this week, leading countries around the globe to impose travel restrictions on the African nation and several others in the region.

To date, no cases of this new variant have been detected in Gibraltar, the Gibraltar Government said, although some precautionary steps are already being taken.

On Friday and Saturday, Gibraltar updated its red list of countries for travel to the Rock, including a number of African countries after the new strain was first detected in region.

In line with the UK Government, Gibraltar added several countries to the red list of countries for travel to Gibraltar, including Botswana; Eswatini; Lesotho; Namibia; South Africa; Angola; Malawi; Mozambique; Zambia; and Zimbabwe.

The UK tightened its own measures after two cases of the Omicron strain were detected over the weekend, with mask-wearing to shops and public transport on Tuesday under plans to combat the new variant of coronavirus.

Passengers arriving to the UK have been told that from 4am on Tuesday they will have to take a PCR test for Covid-19, with the expectation they will have to self-isolate until they test negative.

All contacts with a suspected case of Omicron will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status, amid concerns existing jabs will be less effective against the strain that is believed to spread rapidly.

Gibraltar is also following the UK’s lead with similar steps, although compulsory use of masks in shops and public transport was already in place on the Rock.

“It is not yet known how much more transmissible this new variant is, how much protection the vaccine will offer against this new variant or whether the new variant will result in more severe illness,” No.6 Convent Place said.

“As a precaution, the Director of Public Health has advised that if positive cases of the new variant do occur in Gibraltar, their close contacts will be required to isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status.”

“This is a prudent measure that will be kept under review.”

All of these measures are in addition to the continued requirement for testing of all arrivals at Gibraltar airport.

Additionally, persons residing in or visiting Gibraltar who arrive via any of the other regional airports around Gibraltar from red listed countries must also submit to testing.

“Gibraltar is constantly monitoring developments worldwide and already has a plan in place if the new Omicron variant is detected here,” said Dr Helen Carter, the Director of Public Health.

“At the moment, the advice is to be vigilant.”

“This means wearing a mask where you need to, keep to your social distance, wash your hands and call 111 to arrange a test as soon as you notice any symptoms.”

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo added: “We all have a responsibility to follow the advice from Public Health Gibraltar to ensure that we do everything possible to keep the spread of this new variant detected in the UK and elsewhere in check, insofar as may be reasonably possible.”

“For that reason, we must ensure that all of us wear masks in shops and public transport.”

“We are actively considering other measures and will make such further announcements as may be necessary.”

“We all want to see our lives return to normal, but we cannot throw caution to the wind because we are fatigued by the virus.”

“We must continue to adhere to the rules and use our common sense now that the Omicron strain has been detected in the UK and elsewhere.”

The new Omicron coronavirus variant - identified first in South Africa, but also detected in Europe and Asia - is raising concern worldwide given the number of mutations, which might help it spread or even evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.

The World Health Organization on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant, or Omicron, as a SARS-CoV-2 "variant of concern," saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of coronavirus.

The Delta variant remains dominant worldwide and it is not yet clear whether Omicron will be able to displace Delta.

News of the variant prompted countries to announce new travel restrictions on Friday and sent drugmakers scrambling to see if their Covid-19 vaccines remain protective.

Researchers are scrambling to learn more about the new strain and to test whether vaccines are effective against it, something which could take at least two weeks.

The company that developed the Pfizer Covid-19 shot has said that, subject to approval, it could manufacture and distribute a new version of its jab within 100 days if the new Omicron variant is found to make existing vaccines less effective.

The new variant has over 30 mutations in the part of the virus that current vaccines target. It is also suspected of driving a spike in new infections in South Africa.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told The Andrew Marr Show she first encountered the variant in a man in his early 30s who presented with tiredness and a mild headache, but none of the usual coronavirus symptoms.

She said: “What we are seeing clinically in south Africa, and remember I’m at the epicentre – that’s where I’m practising – it’s extremely mild. For us, that’s mild cases.”

When asked if the UK was “panicking unnecessarily”, she said: “I think you already have it there in your country and you’re not knowing it, and I would say, yes, at this stage I would say definitely.”

“Two weeks from now maybe we will say something different.”

PA and Reuters contributed reporting for this article.

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