Compulsory mask wearing and travel testing come into force in England on Tuesday

27 November 2021, 17:09 | Updated: 28 November 2021, 11:52

  • PM tightens mask rules and orders all international travellers to isolate until they test negative
  • New measures come into effect from Tuesday
  • Two cases of new Omicron Covid variant found in UK
  • Masks to be mandatory again in shops and on transport from next week
  • Day two PCR tests needed for anyone entering the UK
  • All contacts of new variant cases will have to self-isolate even if double jabbed
Sajid Javid confirmed measures to curb the Omicron variant would begin on Tuesday
Sajid Javid confirmed measures to curb the Omicron variant would begin on Tuesday. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

People in England will have to wear face masks in shops and on public transport again from Tuesday, the health secretary has confirmed.

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Anyone flying into the UK will also have to take a PCR test and stay indoors until it comes back negative from 4am on Tuesday.

They are among measures to try and curb the spread of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Boris Johnson ordered the return of mandatory mask use in shops and on public transport and said all international arrivals will have to isolate until they test negative in an update to the nation yesterday.

People coming into the UK will have to take a PCR test by the end of their second day in the UK.

Contacts of Omicron cases will have to self-isolate, even if they are vaccinated, after two cases of the concerning Omicron Covid-19 variant were detected in Britain.

The measures will be reviewed in three weeks.

Mr Johnson said vaccines will offer at least "some measure of protection" against it and insisted he believed Christmas would still be "considerably" better than last year.

His Downing Street press briefing followed the discovery of two Omicron cases in the UK, both of which are linked to each other. One was detected in Nottingham and the other in Essex.

It was already announced that travellers from Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola will face travel restrictions from Sunday.

Read more: Two UK cases of Omicron Covid variant detected with ‘link to travel to southern Africa’

Read more: Suspected Omicron Covid case found in Germany

But in a raft of new measures, Mr Johnson changed the rules for all arrivals to the UK, said anyone who is a contact of an Omicron case will need to self-isolate even if they are double-jabbed or triple-jabbed, and announced that face mask rules will undergo a "tightening up".

He said: "We're not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that, we're not going to stop people travelling, but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.

"Second, we need to slow down the spread of this variant here in the UK, because measures at the border can only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant rather than stop it all together.

"We will require all contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of Omicron to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of your vaccination status.

"We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport."

Those rules will be clarified later, it was announced.

Before he announced the new measures 0 designed to fight the variant's spread until scientists learn more about it - Mr Johnson said it appears Omicron "spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people who are double vaccinated".

He described it as possessing "a very extensive mutation which means it diverges quite significantly from previous configurations of the virus" and it "might at least in part reduce the protection of our vaccines over time".

The PM said he wanted to buy experts time and ensure more people get vaccinated and boosted, with the jabs remaining the best defence against serious illness and death.

Amid fears the new measures could be a prelude to the introduction of restrictions ahead of Christmas, Mr Johnson said he believed this festive period would be "considerably" better than 2020's.

Joining Mr Johnson at the press briefing, chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty said it is "inevitable" the variant will spread across the world in the coming days.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the Government planned to limit the number of Omicron cases imported from abroad, limit the spread of domestic cases and bolster defences against it.

Omicron variant: tracking the spread

November 23:

UK scientists first become aware of the new strain after samples are uploaded to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.

November 25:

Downing Street says the variant will be kept under "close investigation".

Health Secretary Sajid Javid says early indicators show it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines may be less effective against it.

It is announced that from the next day, six southern African countries - South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana - will be added to the travel red list, meaning flights are suspended.

People arriving before then are told to self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight. Anyone who arrived up to 10 days prior is also told to take tests.

Mr Javid says scientists are "deeply concerned" about the variant.

November 26:

Scientists describe the variant as "very serious", with Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, declaring it will "almost certainly" make the vaccines less effective.

Mr Javid updates MPs in the Commons on the variant called B.1.1.529, saying it "is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries".

The Health Secretary tells of "very live" discussions over the prospect of adding further countries to the red list.

He confirms the Government is still following Plan A for managing Covid-19 in the autumn and winter but warns "if we need to go further, we will".

Downing Street later urges those who have recently returned from one of the six southern African countries not to wait for NHS Test and Trace to contact them before getting tested.

On the back of the news, around £72 billion is wiped off London's top shares as the FTSE 100 drops by 3.6%, one of its biggest points falls since the early days of the pandemic in March 2020.

Later in the day, it is designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, and named Omicron.

Boris Johnson speaks to South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa to discuss the challenges of the variant.

November 27:

Two cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant are discovered in Brentwood and in Nottingham, the Department of Health and Social Care announces.

The individuals who tested positive, and all members of their households, are re-tested and told to self-isolate.

Mr Javid says the two cases are linked, as Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola are added to the travel red list.

The Prime Minister hosts a press conference in Downing Street alongside England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

Mr Johnson tells the nation the new strain appears to spread "very rapidly", can transmit between the double-vaccinated and may partially reduce the protection of existing vaccines.

To slow the "seeding" of the virus, Mr Johnson says anyone who enters the UK must take a PCR test by the end of the second day of their arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

All contacts with a suspected case of the new variant will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

Compulsory mask-wearing will also return in England's shops and on public transport in the coming week, falling back into line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but will not be required in pubs and restaurants.

Prof Whitty says the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will be tasked with looking at whether the booster programme can be extended down to the over-18s, and whether second doses should be offered to 12 to 15-year-olds.

Sir Patrick warns the country needs to "face up" to the possibility the variant will be a "major issue" if it turns out to be highly-transmissible and evades immunity.