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They travelled on from airports in normal ways – including on public transport – and were only then asked to take Covid tests and to go into isolation if they tested positive, the health secretary said.
It means the UK does not know how many arrivals from South Africa were infected – after a staggering 10 per cent of people on one flight into the Netherlands did test positive.
Quizzed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Javid admitted there was no testing but insisted: “It’s fair to say that, as the UK, we could not have acted more swiftly.”
But, asked how the passengers “got home from the airport”, he acknowledged: “They would have they would have got home in the normal way.”
Mr Marr asked him: “To be clear, you didn’t test them as they came into Heathrow and then they were allowed to disperse around the country without being tested?
“And, if the Dutch experience is anything to go by, 10 per cent of them had the new variant of coronavirus?”
The health secretary said the “appropriate thing to do” was to contact the passengers afterwards, to ask them to take tests. Flights were banned later on Friday.
Mr Javid also revealed that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will advise within a few days on expanding booster jabs to under-40s and cutting the six-month gap after a second jab.
And he defended not adopting a work from home rule – despite the Sage advisory group concluding it is the most effective Covid-curbing measure – saying: “They give advice and ministers need to decide.”
Mr Javid said advice would be updated if it proves to be the case that the symptoms of Omicron are different, causing extreme fatigue but no loss of taste or smell.
Earlier, he said England is “nowhere near” introducing tougher Covid restrictions such as social distancing, or working from home.
Mask-wearing will be compulsory in shops and on public transport from Tuesday. Day 2 PCR tests for all arrivals will be re-introduced from 4am that day.
New coronavirus regulations will be laid in parliament on Monday, but a vote will not be held until up to 28 days later – long after the measures take effect.
A number of backbench Tories are likely to stage a rebellion but, with Labour supporting the restrictions, there is no danger that the vote will be lost.
But the doctor who discovered the Omicron variant said the UK is “panicking unnecessarily” and that the symptoms are “extremely mild”.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, 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.”