Failure to wear a face mask in shops and on public transport in England will be punishable by hefty fines under new rules.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the variant, designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, appears to spread “very rapidly” and can transmit between people who are fully vaccinated.
It is also feared that it may partially reduce the protection offered by existing vaccines.
Rule changes in England
Downing Street has confirmed that face masks will be made mandatory in all shops in England, and on public transport, from 4am on Tuesday (30 November).
This will bring the country back in line with the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but masks will not be required in pubs or restaurants, or at concerts or events.
The new rules will be enforceable by a penalty, meaning those who fail to comply will be fined.
Failure to wear a mask will result in a £200 fine for the first offence, but this charge will then double for any further rule breaks.
As such, a second offence will be punishable by £400, a third will cost £800, with fines continuing to climb up to £6,400.
However, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that people can half their fine by paying within the first two weeks, as was the case last year.
Speaking to Sky News he said: “Doing it in this proportionate way where it’s for public transport, it’s for retail outlets, I think is the right level of response on masks.
“It will be via government regulation and that means, I think, that people will take it seriously."
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has also recommended that face masks should be worn by staff, visitors and pupils in Year 7 and above in communal areas in schools, colleges and universities, such as corridors, canteens and halls.
Christmas should be ‘normal’
While Covid-19 measures are being tightened to combat the spread of the Omicron variant, Mr Javid has told families to plan for a great Christmas “as normal”.
He insisted that it was “nowhere near” time to reintroduce social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance, and the government has so far stopped short of introducing its winter plan B to tackle coronavirus.
Speaking on Sky News, he said: “We know now those types of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as impact on mental health.
“So, if one was to make decisions like that they would have to be done very, very carefully and we’re not there yet, we’re nowhere near that.”
However, the government is expected to receive new advice “imminently” from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) about extending booster vaccines to everyone over the age of 18.
The JCVI is also considering whether second doses should be offered to 12- to 15-year-olds, and if the waiting time before a booster jab could be reduced.
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