You’ve almost definitely seen the headlines by now. Over the past few weeks, there’s been plenty of news about a new COVID variant, changes to COVID restrictions, and what the new variant could mean for people in the UK and beyond over the coming weeks and months.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed – it can be difficult to find simple, accurate information about what’s going on and what you can do to look after your wellbeing.
The Omicron variant
COVID-19 is caused by a virus. Viruses copy themselves; sometimes, when a virus copies itself, random changes happen – we call these changes mutations. Mutations create a slightly different version of the virus. The more a virus copies itself, the greater the chance of a mutation. One benefit of curbing the spread is that when the virus has fewer chances to copy itself, fewer mutations are likely.
Scientists have been naming the different versions of the virus that causes COVID-19 after letters of the Greek alphabet to help everyone keep track.
The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa on 24 November, though we’re not totally sure where and when it began. The Omicron variant has lots of different mutations.
Scientists are still working out exactly what differences these mutations will make. They think that people who have recovered from COVID-19 might be more easily reinfected with Omicron compared to other variants. UK experts now believe the new variant could be spreading faster than the Delta variant (the one that arrived in the UK last spring).
We do not yet know how this virus affects people when they become ill. Some studies have found that antibodies (proteins that stick to the surface of the virus to stop it infecting cells) are less effective at taking out the Omicron variant. We do not know what the difference will be clinically for people who have become infected – it may make no difference at all! Our immune systems are complicated and involve more than antibodies.
The good news is that experts say that vaccines should still protect people against severe illness from Omicron, especially for people who have had two vaccines and a booster. Experiments have shown that a third dose of vaccine massively boosts levels of antibodies.
In response to the Omicron variant, the government put temporary measures in place and then moved to Plan B. This changed the rules about international travel, face coverings, COVID passes, and self-isolation. You can find out more about current restrictions on the government website.
The government has also made changes to the vaccination programme. Now, everyone aged 18 and above will be offered a third ‘booster’ jab, and young people aged 12 to 17 will be able to get a second dose of the vaccine.
Managing COVID anxiety
Different people will feel different things in response to the news about the Omicron variant. ‘Some people might feel anxious and worried – others might feel frustrated, angry, sad, or even relieved that some restrictions are coming back! All of these responses are totally normal and OK,’ says Dr Johan Redelinghuys, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and Clinical Director, North West London CAHMS Provider Collaborative.
It’s tempting to try to find as much information as you can, but ‘Spending too much time checking the news might make you feel more anxious – especially if you end up reading lots of different people’s opinions and predictions,’ Dr Redelinghuys says. ‘Try to find a reliable and trustworthy source of information. Remember that many sources on the internet might present things as fact when they are not’.
‘You could decide to only check news from one source,’ like Newsround or the Prime Minister’s briefings, ‘or ask a parent or carer to tell you when things that affect you (like mask regulations) change’.
You might want to turn off news notifications on your phone, or mute certain words or accounts on social media, to help reduce the amount of time you spend reading about COVID.
Try not to get too caught up in what could happen in the future. ‘Thinking about all of the possible negative outcomes is definitely going to make you feel more worried,’ says Dr Redelinghuys. Instead, he recommends that people try things that help them to clear their minds or focus on constructive aspects of their lives.
Lots of people find mindfulness helpful – you can find apps that help you relax or practise mindfulness on the Best For You app library.
You can’t control the future or stop COVID, so Dr Redelinghuys says it’s best to focus on what you can control. Think about the realistic things you can do to look after yourself. ‘You can keep up a bedtime routine that helps you relax, and you can stay in touch with friends,’ Dr Redelinghuys explains. ‘You can get vaccinated (if you’re old enough) and wear a mask according to government guidelines too’.
Finally, remember that you don’t have to manage on your own. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are lots of people you can talk to. Dr Redelinghuys suggests that young people could ‘speak to a trusted adult or go to the ‘get help now’ section of the Best For You website, where there are plenty of ways to get support’.