Face masks to return on Tuesday as third case of Omicron found in UK

Health chief Sajid Javid expects facial protection to rise under updated rules for shops and public transport

People wear masks on board a London Underground train, where enforcement has been limited. AP
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People in England will take mask-wearing more seriously because of the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said.

It came as a third case of the variant was identified in the UK, in someone who had travelled from southern Africa and is no longer in Britain.

While in the UK, the person was known to be in Westminster, the London borough which is home to the British government and parliament.

"It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally," said Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency.

Ministers responded to growing concerns over the variant by restoring mask mandates in England for shops and public transport.

Mask use has been patchy since the rules were relaxed in July, despite requirements by local transport authorities, but Mr Javid predicted the new variant would change people’s stance.

“I think that over the last few days, and of course this has been very fast-moving, I think people would have been able to see and understand the concerns around this new variant,” he told Sky News.

“I think that will encourage people in any way to listen and think about some of the new measures. I do think people will take this more seriously.”

Masks will become mandatory on Tuesday, Mr Javid said.

More severe measures were not on the cards, the minister said, amid concerns that Christmas gatherings could be restricted for a second year running.

“I think people should continue with their plans as normal for Christmas. I think it’s going to be a great Christmas”, he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Christmas should be much better than last year, when restrictions imposed only days before December 25 ruined plans for many families.

The return of mask requirements was one of three measures announced by Mr Johnson to respond to the variant, along with more booster vaccines and tougher rules for international travel.

Face coverings are to be brought back for communal areas in England’s schools and colleges as part of measures to contain the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, it has been announced.

Under the new guidance, all staff, visitors and pupils in Year 7 – the first year of secondary school – or above, are “strongly advised” to wear a covering, unless exempt.

The measure, which applies from Monday, covers all education establishments including universities, as well as childcare settings such as early years care.

The guidance does not mean masks should be worn in classrooms but it is advised that they are worn in communal areas like corridors.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “The news of a new variant – the so-called Omicron variant – will have understandably caused concern for people across our country, including our teachers, wider education and childcare staff, parents, pupils and students.

“We are already taking targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we find out more information about the new variant.

“As we do so, we will continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and children continue to benefit from classroom teaching.

“We are working with education and childcare settings to enhance safety measures where needed, including introducing isolation for 10 days for close contacts of suspected Omicron cases.

“I’d like to thank everyone working to support our children and young people for their patience and hard work.”

The guidance is temporary and will be reviewed in three weeks, the Department for Education said.

An urgent meeting of G7 health ministers will be held on Monday to discuss the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

“Under the UK presidency an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers will also be convened on Monday November 29 to discuss the developments on Omicron,” said the Department of Health and Social Care.

As other European countries tightened their rules, the UK was added to a quarantine list by Switzerland, which means travellers from Britain will have to isolate for 10 days.

The Netherlands became the latest European country to detect samples of the variant on Sunday, after examining test results from 61 people who returned from South Africa with the virus.

Thirteen of them were found to have the new variant in what Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told a news conference may just be "the tip of the iceberg" in the Netherlands.

The passengers are being kept in isolation at a hotel near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, while authorities try to track down 5,000 others who have arrived from southern Africa in recent days.

Tougher domestic rules took effect on Sunday in the Netherlands despite sometimes violent protests against the measures.

Under latest rules, masks are compulsory in shops, libraries and government buildings. Most shops and restaurants must close by 5pm.

Updated: November 29, 2021, 11:48 AM
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