THE Omicron variant is spreading in communities across the UK, Sajid Javid revealed today.
The Health Secretary announced there are now 336 cases of the new Covid strain in the country.
In an update to MPs this afternoon, he said some of those infections aren't linked to international travel.
And he warned the new mutant strain could "knock us off our road to recovery" if it turns out to be vaccine resistant.
It came after Boris Johnson admitted he couldn't rule out snap Covid restrictions over Christmas and Downing Street said the PM would make an announcement before MPs break up for their holidays on December 16.
Mr Javid also said Brits may need to get annual vaccinations in future, adding: "We have to find ways to continue with life as normal."
He told the Commons: "The Omicron variant is continuing to spread here and around the world.
"According to the latest data there are now 261 confirmed cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336.
"This includes cases with no links to international travel. So, we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England."
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The health secretary said there's early evidence that "the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter" for Omicron.
He added: "We don't yet have a complete picture of where Omicron causes more severe disease, or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.
"So we can't say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery."
He said we're seeing evidence of the variant's increased infectiousness but it's too soon to "jump to conclusions" on reports it may cause less severe illness.
But he confirmed that none of the UK's 336 Omicron cases have been hospitalised so far.
New travel curbs
Mr Javid formally announced new travel restrictions which will see all arrivals in the UK require a pre-departure test from 4am tomorrow.
Nigeria has also been added to the red list after 21 cases in the UK were linked to travel from the country.
The health secretary said the Omicron variant has now been found in 52 countries including many in Europe.
But he added that the UK's rapid booster vaccine rollout means the UK is in good shape to fight the new strain.
He said the programme is "steaming ahead at a blistering pace" with 2.6 million people getting jabbed last week and a further 3.6 million booked in.
Mr Javid acknowledged the new travel curbs will "bring disruption" and "impact people's plans to spend time with their loved ones" over Christmas.
But he insisted: "We are leaving nothing to chance. We'll be as prepared as possible for whatever this virus brings.
"Our strategy is to buy ourselves time and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid 19.
"We cannot say for certain what it means for our response but we can say we're doing everything in our power to strengthen our national defences."
We can't say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery
He added: "These are temporary measures while we improve our understanding of this new variant.
"I firmly believe that whenever we put in place curbs on people's freedoms we must make sure they are absolutely necessary and we won't keep these measures in place for a day longer than we have to."
Mr Javid also vowed to crackdown on unscrupulous testing companies which advertise false prices to get to the top of the Government website.
It has emerged firms are posting swabs for just 30p, only for customers to find they cost from £59 when they click through to order them.
The health sec raged: "We have removed, rightly so, over 100 providers from the Government website in recent weeks.
"Some 20 were removed this weekend for showing misleading prices and we will continue taking a tough and hard line."
Mr Johnson's spokesman said earlier today that he's confident the true threat of Omicron will allow them to make a final decision on any new restrictions by the end of next week.
He said: "We are confident we will have more data than we currently do and we will be able to update Parliament during that week [commencing the 13th].
But he warned that any decisions won't be locked in and could suddenly change during the holiday period.
The PM's spokesman said: "We do have the ability to take public health decisions in the interest of public health during recess."
Last year Mr Johnson threw Christmas plans into chaos by announcing an 11th-hour rule change banning gatherings in large parts of the country like London.
And he then caused more misery by plunging Britain into a third national lockdown in the New Year.
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