Coronavirus Briefing: Britain’s Omicron restrictions

And the verdict on Pfizer’s Covid pill.,


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ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

During the summer, with virus cases on the wane, Britain embraced a live-and-let-live approach, casting off many virus restrictions on what became known as “freedom day.” Five months later, as Omicron doubles infections every two or three days, the country is reversing course.

The government today voted to pass a string of new measures meant to stem the latest surge. But even as the country estimates that about 200,000 people a day are being infected with Omicron, a record number of Conservative lawmakers voted against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan. It was a striking rebuke to their leader at a time when he has called for a national campaign to prevent Omicron from swamping the country.

Opposition to the plan focused mainly on what critics described as “vaccine passports” but the government called a “Covid certification” policy. The new regulation requires people entering nightclubs, large indoor venues and some sporting events in England to show proof of vaccination or of a recent negative Covid test.

Nearly 40 Conservatives also rebelled against the government’s plan to expand the compulsory use of face masks. Lawmakers passed a measure requiring health workers to be vaccinated.

There are many explanations for the paradoxical vote, my colleagues Mark Landler and Stephen Castle report, including Britain’s cherished tradition of protecting individual liberties and a deep sense of fatigue with a government that has lurched from policy to policy during the pandemic.

But while Conservatives have long been skeptical of lockdowns, the insurgents have been joined by some lawmakers who argue that Covid certificates will do little to stop Omicron.

Indeed, the government today relaxed one restriction, removing all 11 countries from its “red list,” which required travelers to quarantine in hotels after they arrive in Britain. The decision essentially acknowledges that Omicron has spread so widely that the restrictions no longer matter.

The rebellion among Conservative lawmakers — the worst since Johnson’s landslide victory in 2019 — attests to his weakened political standing, which public health experts say has dire epidemiological implications.

Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh, said it was “politically difficult for the PM now to have any authority to put in place necessary protections.”

Britain is mainly tightening rules to encourage more people to get inoculated (roughly 30 percent of the population is not yet fully vaccinated). Defenders of vaccine passes say they have driven up vaccination rates in France and Italy. But they have also ignited protests in both countries, with critics calling them discriminatory.

Pfizer announced today that a highly anticipated study of the company’s Covid pill confirmed that it helps stave off severe disease. Lab studies also showed that the pill worked against the Omicron variant.

The pill, Paxlovid, reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent if given within three days of the onset of symptoms. If given within five days, the risk was reduced by 88 percent.

Pfizer said the pill held up against Omicron by jamming into one of its key proteins, called a protease, just as effectively as it does with other variants. Omicron is surging in South Africa and Europe and is expected to dominate U.S. cases in the weeks ahead.

Last month, Pfizer asked the F.D.A. to authorize the pill based on a preliminary batch of data. The new results will undoubtedly strengthen the company’s application, which means that Americans infected with the virus could have access to the pill within weeks.

More Omicron news:

Today’s questions on testing and the variant go to Carl Zimmer, who covers science for The Times. (If you have a question, you can fill out this form.)

Are rapid at-home Covid-19 virus test kits effective in detecting Omicron? P. Zamora, San Francisco

Yes, at-home antigen tests will tell you if you have the coronavirus, regardless of the variant. But rapid at-home tests tell you only if you have SARS-CoV-2 or not. They don’t tell you which variant you have. Standard PCR tests won’t tell you, either.

If at-home Covid tests produce a positive result, should one then get professionally tested, perhaps placing others at risk, or just isolate and treat at home? Abbe Herbst, Bronx, N.Y.

A PCR test is a good idea following a positive antigen test. You can go through a drive-through window to avoid putting others at risk.

As the Omicron variant continues to spread, my life is mostly how it was before the pandemic. I wear a mask when I am asked to (without complaint!) but not if I don’t have to. My wife and I are both fully vaccinated and plan on getting our boosters as soon as we are eligible. We go to completely unmasked gatherings with our friends and families, and go out almost every weekend. We have accepted that Covid-19 is now an inherent risk — much like driving a car is — and refuse to let it interfere with our lives any more.

— Clayton Mims, North Augusta, S.C.

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