A few days after scientists identified it in South Africa, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has appeared in cases around the world – including 42 confirmed cases in the UK so far.

South Africa has reported a sharp increase in total cases, 8,561 on 1st December, and Omicron has been detected in 20 countries. Whether the new variant is more contagious or deadly is yet to be confirmed.

In the meantime, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled it a “variant of concern”, and national governments have already begun implementing responses. As of the 30th November 2021, face masks are mandatory in shops and on public transport in England. A new phase of mandates regarding testing for international travellers and self-isolation for those who encounter Omicron-confirmed cases have also come into effect.

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Little is known whether the symptoms of Omicron differ from other variants. In South Africa, the majority of those who are infected are young which could be because they have received only one vaccine dose so far. Positive cases have reported mild symptoms.

The BBC reports that “there is some suggestion” of different symptoms to the dominant Delta variant, including body pains and no loss of taste and smell. However, at this stage reports are solely anecdotal and more research must be done.

According to the WHO, a cough, fever and loss of taste and smell are still the tell-tale symptoms to watch for.

Moreover, advice on keeping yourself and your family safe remain the same. Getting fully vaccinated reduces the risk of needing hospital treatment if you contract the virus, and booster jabs can offer maximum protection throughout the winter months.

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The immune system suffers in winter for several reasons. Reduced Vitamin D levels due to decreased sun exposure is believed to be one culprit, and cold temperatures may weaken the cells in the nasal cavity, responsible for virus protection. In addition, behavioural factors such as spending more time indoors close to other people increase the likelihood of transmission.

Currently, booster jabs are available for people over 40, care and frontline health workers, and those over 16 with underlying health issues. Those eligible can book the vaccination online.

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The debate over whether to extend booster jabs to all adults comes as early studies on waning vaccine effectiveness are being published. One study suggests the antibodies produced in response to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the most common for under 40s, reduced by up to 57% after six months.

As the festive period approaches, health authorities recommend keeping a physical distance of 1 metre (or more) from others and staying away from crowded and poorly-ventilated areas. If you’re planning on having guests over throughout Christmas, opening windows can help improve ventilation, and regular hand-washing can help limit the transmission of the virus.