New face mask and travel rules will 'buy us time' against Omicron variant, PM says

29 November 2021, 22:30 | Updated: 30 November 2021, 13:14

A total of 14 cases of the Omicron variant have been detected
A total of 14 cases of the Omicron variant have been detected. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

New restrictions designed to "buy us time" against the Omicron variant came into force early on Tuesday, including mandatory mask wearing and new travel rules.

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Shoppers now need to wear a covering over their nose and mouth in stores and commuters on public transport have to mask up, unless exempt.

Arrivals to the UK have to isolate and take a PCR test by the end of day two in the country, remaining in quarantine until they get a negative result.

Anyone who is considered a contact of an Omicron case must also self-isolate regardless of their age or if they are fully-vaccinated.

Read more: What time is Boris Johnson's press conference and what is he expected to say?

Boris Johnson was asked whether he agreed with UK Health Security Agency chief Dr Jenny Harries who suggested people could limit their social contacts to curb the spread of the new coronavirus variant.

The Prime Minister said: "I think it's always sensible to be careful. But I think what Jenny is saying there is right, we've been living with a pandemic for a long time, people should continue to do things like make sure they have lots of fresh air, they wash their hands and take normal precautions, I think that's entirely reasonable.

"But we're not going to change the overall guidance. We don't think that's necessary. We don't see anything to suggest that we need to go, for instance, to Plan B.

"But what we do need to do is take particular precautions against Omicron until we've worked out exactly what kind of a threat it may present."

Concerns are being raised about the effectiveness of the current vaccines against the new strain, with the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Moderna predicting a "material drop" in their ability to prevent infection because of the mutations the variant has of the virus' spike proteins.

"I think it’s going to be a material drop," he told the Financial Times.

"I just don't know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I've talked to... are like, 'this is not going to be good'."

He added that the current variants may need to be modified next year in order to control the virus.

Speaking about the new face mask rules on public transport, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, said 500 Transport for London (TfL) enforcement officers will be monitoring compliance.

He added that the British Transport Police and the Met will also be on patrol, issuing fines to passengers who refuse to wear masks.

Asked about what will happen to customers refusing to wear a mask, Mr Khan told James O'Brien: "Today will be encouragement and education, later on this week will be enforcement, and we will see more Londoners doing the right thing.

"Err on the side of caution, if you are not sure whether you have to wear one and you think you can't keep your social distance put one on, it is better to be safe than sorry.

"Just like when you leave your home you take your phone and your front door keys, take a face mask.

"What is the downside?

"What inconvenience are you suffering and incurring by taking a face mask with you?"

Read more: Omicron rules explained: Where to wear face masks and who has to self-isolate

Read more: All adults to be offered Covid booster jab to fight Omicron variant

Boris Johnson said the measures taking effect are "proportionate and responsible", and will "buy us time" in the face of this new variant.

"Based on everything we know, our vaccines and boosters remain our best line of defence, so it is more important than ever that people come forward when eligible to get boosted.

"Not only will today's steps help us slow down the variant's spread, but they will help us protect each other and the gains we have all worked so hard for."

The measures move England's rules closer to Scotland, where anyone aged 12 and over must wear a covering in places like shops, though hospitality will be exempt south of the border.

Scroll to the bottom of this article for more on where masks are required

Not much is known about Omicron and countries are implementing restrictions as a precaution while experts race to better understand the variant.

Read more: Five cases of Omicron variant found in England taking total UK infections to 11

A total of 11 cases had been detected in the UK, where it is suspected the variant is already spreading, by Monday evening.

Professor Jonathan Van Tam, speaking at a Downing Street press briefing on Monday, said scientists agree this variant is of "increased concern" and are uncertain on how transmissible it is and whether it causes more severe disease.

He told reporters that the "number of mutations present, already on first principle, makes us worry about a possible effect on vaccine effectiveness" but he expects the picture to become clearer in three weeks - when the new measures will be reviewed.

Labour has hit out at the Conservatives for removing the mandatory requirement for masks in the first place, and criticised the fact that masks will be imposed in shops but not for other businesses where crowds gather indoors.

The party's shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan asked why all hospitality businesses were exempt but masks will be required in shops banks, post offices and hairdressers.

She said: "We support the decision to introduce masks on public transport and in shops, but we believe this should never have been abandoned in the first place.

"Keeping masks in place would always have been our Plan A."

Speaking the House of Commons, she asked Health Secretary Sajid Javid if "Covid [does] not spread in pubs?"

All adults are set to be offered a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine, provided it has been at least three months since their second jab, since they are still the best defence against serious illness.

The boosters, which have applied so far only to over 40s and at risk groups, will be rolled out based on how vulnerable a person is to Covid infection.

Young people aged 12 to 15 will be offered a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, while severely immunosuppressed individuals who've had three doses will now be offered a fourth jab to bolster their defence against Covid.

Surge testing and contact tracing are also being used to try and track down people who spent time near a case of the Omicron variant.

Five cases were detected in England by Monday evening, and a further six were reported in Scotland.

Meanwhile, on top of the new rules for arrivals to the UK, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Angola were added to the red list.

Omicron was first detected in southern Africa.

Face coverings will be needed in the following locations, the Government said:

• shops and supermarkets (places which offer goods or services for retail sale or hire) (this includes shops in larger premises such as a gift shop within a museum)

• shopping centres (malls and indoor markets)

• takeaways (without space for consumption of food or drink on premises)

• auction houses and retail galleries

• post offices, banks, building societies, high-street solicitors and accountants, credit unions, short-term loan providers, savings clubs and money service businesses

• estate and lettings agents, and retail travel agents

• premises providing personal care and beauty treatments (such as hair salons, barbers, nail salons, massage centres, tattoo and piercing studios)

• pharmacies

• vets

• public transport services (aeroplanes, trains, trams, buses, coaches, and ferries)

• taxis and private hire vehicles

• transport hubs (airports, rail and tram stations and terminals, maritime ports and terminals, bus and coach stations and terminals)

• Face coverings must also be worn in any car or small van during a professionally delivered driving lesson, a practical driving test, or during one of the practical tests for giving driving instruction. They must also be worn in all HGV lessons and tests.