COMPULSORY mask-wearing returned last night in a bid to save Christmas from a super-mutant coronavirus.
Boris Johnson ordered the move after at least two cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant were found in the UK.
Mr Johnson stopped short of imposing a devastating shutdown of pubs and restaurants in the run-up to ChristmasCredit: Getty
He also urged people to get booster jabs, saying: “It’s more vital than ever.”
Mask-wearing will again be compulsory in shops and buses, trains and taxis in England from tomorrow.
Overseas travel and self-isolation rules have been tightened after the first two cases of the super-strain were detected in Britain.
Scientists will explore how the booster programme can be extended, including to those as young as 18.
The PM’s measures, outlined at a Downing Street briefing, aim to slow down its spread until scientists know just how dangerous it is.
But Mr Johnson stopped short of imposing a devastating shutdown of pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas.
And he insisted that if the public stick to the rules and get their jabs, there will no need for another last-gasp festive lockdown.
The PM declared: “I’m absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than the last.”
The new restrictions, which can be introduced without a Commons vote, also include:
- TEN days’ enforced self-isolation for all contacts of those who test positive — whether or not they have been double-jabbed, and;
- ALL UK arrivals must take a PCR test within 48 hours and self-isolate until a negative result.
The measures will be in place for three weeks to give scientists time to analyse the variant.
The situation will be reassessed on December 18 — almost a year to the day that the PM announced a last-minute ban on Christmas family get-togethers.
Despite the reassurances, the mere prospect of fresh Covid curbs will send shockwaves through the hospitality industry which saw takings fall by almost 80 per cent in the festive period last year.
Mr Johnson refused to give any guarantees but he is clear that there will be no lockdown like last year, and people were not being asked to work from home.
In a further move, he announced plans to step up the pace of the jabs programme.
He has asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to consider reducing the wait for a booster vaccine from six months to five months.
He also wants experts to explore the possibility of extending the offer of a third shot to 18 to 39-year-olds.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the JCVI will need to decide whether to extend the booster vaccine down to those aged 18 and over.
They will look at whether 12 to 15-year-olds can now be offered their second doses.
Prof Whitty said: “It’s pretty clear if we are vaccinated, and in particular get the booster, we will be in a stronger overall position.”
Mr Johnson also stressed it was more vital than ever to get your jabs — and a booster when it is your turn. He said: “We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against Omicron, but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection.
“And if you are boosted your response is likely to be stronger.
“So it’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs, and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible. So from today we’re going to boost the booster campaign.”
Mr Johnson stressed that the action on borders, masks and isolation was precautionary ahead of the December 18 review.
He added: “At that point we should have much greater information about the continuing effectiveness of vaccines.
“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 this new variant, and to maximise our defences, so we protect the gains we have worked so hard for and so that we can continue to save lives.”
Meanwhile Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said there is currently no evidence yet that Omicron causes more serious illness.
He stressed: “We don’t yet know about its propensity to spread, particularly in a highly vaccinated population, and we don’t think it will lead to a sudden rise in severe disease because the characteristics are so similar to the previous variants.”
Earlier yesterday, four more African countries were added to the red list for travel, bringing the total to ten in three days.
The swift action was taken within just a few hours of two cases of the new variant being found in Britain.
The infected people and members of their households were told to enter self-isolation after one person was found to be infected in Brentwood, Essex, and another in Nottingham.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned grimly: “This is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over.”
Scientists used genomic sequencing to confirm the cases are linked and involved travel to one of the countries where the variant is prevalent.
But Mr Johnson insisted: “We are not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that.”
The four countries added to the red list for extra restrictions were Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.
They join South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia, with any arrivals from 4am today having to quarantine in a hotel for ten days.
Yesterday there were 39,567 cases and 131 deaths recorded in the UK — down from 50,091 cases and 160 deaths on Friday.
Boris Johnson has introduced new crackdown rules
There are already two known Omicron cases in the UK
Brits have been ordered to wear face masks in shops and on public transportCredit: AFP
The Omicron variant has spread to the UK just days after it was discovered in Africa