The Observer view on the Omicron variant | Observer editorial

The emergence of a vaccine-resistant variant of the virus is the biggest risk to the UK at this stage of the epidemic. The World Health Organization last week identified a new variant of concern called Omicron.

The structure of Omicron and the preliminary evidence that there is an increased risk of reinfection with this variant have prompted a global response to try and contain its spread. We don't know how much risk Omicron presents. If it is much more infectious than the Delta variant of Covid, it is inevitable that it will spread around the world, though it will be slowed by vaccines and travel restrictions. It is a relief that the government acted quickly to impose travel restrictions on South Africa and other countries that were affected by the events in India, where a delay of weeks undoubtedly contributed to the speed at which Delta became the dominant variant here in the UK. The government has not been testing all arrivals from South Africa in the same way as the Dutch government has done.

The emergence of Omicron should serve as a reminder of some important lessons. The first is the importance of the genetics of the virus. Thanks to South Africa's huge investment in sequencing, swift action has been taken. If needed, this could be useful in the development of updated vaccines. There is a case for South Africa to receive global compensation in order not to be disincentivized from being transparent about their findings because of this action.

Gordon Brown highlighted in the Guardian last week that Omicron is a reminder that no one is safe until everyone is safe. By the end of the year, there will be enough vaccine to protect the world against Covid. Too many countries are facing low vaccination rates this winter because wealthier nations are storing unused supplies. In low-income countries, only 3% of people are fully vaccine free, compared with more than 60% in high-income countries. The gap is ethically wrong because it increases the likelihood of a vaccine-resistant strain. High-income countries need to develop more efficient and timely systems for delivering unused vaccinations to developing countries.

The importance of the precautionary principle has been proven many times. Less restriction action sooner can prevent the need for more restrictive action later. The success of Britain's vaccine programme means that if we see another vaccine-resistant variant, like Omicron, we should be able to avoid the kind of lockdowns that were required in the first and second waves.

The government was right yesterday to impose stricter requirements around travel, self-isolation, and compulsory masks for people who have been in contact with Omicron. We have argued throughout the Pandemic that sick pay needs to be increased in order to make it easier for people with symptoms to take time off work. The former chair of the vaccine taskforce, Clive Dix, sounded the alarm about the government's lack of preparation for a vaccine resistant variant.

Omicron will hopefully prove to be less of a risk than people think. We should treat it as a lucky escape. The UK and other rich nations should be doing more to fight the spread of the virus in other parts of the world because it is a warning that this epidemic is far from over.