Biden rules out using lockdowns to tackle Omicron threat

Joe Biden has ruled out another round of lockdowns in the US this winter despite the risk posed by the new Omicron variant, as the president pledged to tackle any new surge with more vaccinations.

Describing Omicron as “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic”, Biden said that he would unveil a plan on Thursday for tackling the virus this winter “not with shutdowns and lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more”.

He added: “If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there’s no need for lockdowns.”

The US president was speaking publicly for the first time since he shut down travel from a range of southern African countries late last week amid fears that the heavily-mutated variant of coronavirus could evade vaccines.

While other countries such as Japan, Israel and Morocco have banned all foreign visitors, Biden said that the US was not yet planning to impose further travel restrictions.

“The degree of the spread impacts on whether or not there is a need for any travel restrictions, but . . . I don’t anticipate that at this point.”

The US has not yet confirmed a case of the new variant, but Biden predicted cases in the country would emerge and he urged adults to get a booster vaccine to help protect against it.

“You have to get your vaccine,” he said. “You have to get the shot, have to get a booster.”

“Sooner or later we are going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States. We will have to face this new threat just as we have faced those that have come before.”

The Omicron strain was first detected in southern Africa and was labelled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization last Friday, owing to its number of genetic mutations compared with previous strains. The White House announced new travel restrictions for eight southern African countries, including South Africa, on the same day.

Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, said he believed that existing vaccines would confer some protection against the new variant despite its different genetic make-up.

But Biden said the White House was “already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters, if needed”.

“I will also direct the FDA and the CDC to use the fastest process available — without cutting any corners for safety — to get such vaccines approved and on the market, if needed,” he added.

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