Omicron variant: tighter rules on face masks in England and PCR tests for foreign travel announced
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said that the new rules will come into force on Tuesday
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The Government is bringing back mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport, and PCR tests for international travel, after three cases of the Omicron variant of Covid were identified in the UK.
There is mounting concern over the highly mutated variant, which originated in Southern Africa and is rapidly spreading around the world.
At-a-glance: 5 key points
- The Prime Minister has announced that all international arrivals will have to take a PCR test by the end of their second day in the UK, and has ordered the return of mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport.
- Boris Johnson said the “temporary and precautionary” measures will be reviewed in three weeks, while the Government’s vaccine experts will be tasked with considering whether to extend booster jabs to all over-18s.
- Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday that new mask wearing rules for shops and public transport in England should come into force on Tuesday.
- It comes after three cases of Omicron were identified in London, Nottingham and Brentwood, Essex, with all linked to travel to southern Africa.
- Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have maintained mandatory mask-wearing in public places, said they intend to mirror the border restrictions.
More nations added to red list
On Saturday, the UK Health Security Agency confirmed the two Omicron cases in England after genomic sequencing overnight.
The individuals and their households were ordered into self-isolation and targeted testing is being carried out in areas where they are thought to have been infectious.
A third case was confirmed on Sunday, the case relates to a South African person who visited Westminster in London but has since left the UK.
To further slow the arrival of cases, ministers said Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola will face travel restrictions from Sunday, when they will join South Africa and five other neighbouring nations on UK red lists.
When will the rules on travel come into force?
According to a message on the passenger locator form section of the Government’s website, testing and isolation requirements will change for people travelling into the UK from 4am on Tuesday.
The message says: “After 04:00 Tuesday 30 November 2021 lateral flow tests will no longer be accepted and all travellers arriving into UK will be required to book and take Covid-19 PCR tests.”
What did Sajid Javid say?
The Health Secretary has said he is expecting to get advice on broadening the booster programme from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation “imminently”.
Speaking to Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News, Sajid Javid said vaccines are now more important “than it was before”.
He said: “We know that vaccines work. Yes, this new variant may make it less effective or not. But the vaccines work, they are our first form of defence and that is why I have also asked our expert advisers on vaccines called JCVI to give me very quick advice on broadening boosting our booster programme.
“I expect to get that advice imminently. This is all about acting swiftly in a proportionate and balanced way to protect the progress that we have made.”
The Health Secretary has said he hopes extra measures will be “temporary”, adding he thinks people will “take this more seriously”.
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.”
Asked whether people will follow the rules on masks, Mr Javid said following the news of a new variant: “I do think people will take this more seriously.”
Mr Javid added: “It’s important, I think, to act in a proportionate way and also in a temporary way.
“I hope this is something that we can remove within weeks. But I do think in terms of making progress, we want life to go back towards normal, but at this point in time, given what we know about this variant, and the expert advice that has been received, I think it is right to take some proportionate and balanced action.”
What did Boris Johnson say?
The Prime Minister said he is “confident” this Christmas “will be considerably better than the last”, which was largely cancelled for millions of people, but he refused to say whether further restrictions could be imposed.
He said: “I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position and we can lift these measures again, but right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximise our defences so that we protect the gains we’ve worked for so hard.”
While the effectiveness of vaccines against Omicron is currently unclear, the Prime Minister said there are “good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection”.
He stopped short of bringing back the work-from-home guidance or extending the use of vaccine passports.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said 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.
He said that the existing booster programme is the current priority, but that vaccine manufacturers believe they can tweak their existing jabs to better counter Omicron “in about 100 days”.
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