Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reintroduced mandatory masks for shops and public transport in response to the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant, despite the requirements only being lifted in July.
On Wednesday, a new strain of coronavirus — B.1.1.529, dubbed ‘Omicron’ — was identified in southern Africa, prompting the United Kingdom on Friday to impose travel restrictions on those coming from several southern African countries and requiring arrivals to quarantine in hotels for ten days.
On Saturday, two cases on the Omicron variant were detected in the UK, in Essex in the southeast of England and in Nottinghamshire in central England. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the cases were linked to recent travel from southern Africa. Mr Javid had said yesterday that the Omicron strain “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta variety, and there remained the possibility “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson held an impromptu press conference on Saturday at 5 pm, during which he used rather unclear language to announce a “tightening up” of the rules on mask-wearing in shops and on public transport — rules that were lifted in July, leaving unclear what there is to “tighten up”.
Mr Johnson told the press during his speech: “We will also be 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.”
Likely communicating a confusion expressed by many hearing such an unclear statement, Sky News’s Nick Martin asked Johnson: “Can you just be a bit clearer about what you said about face coverings? You said it would be necessary to ‘tighten up’ on them. Are you tonight saying you’re going to make face coverings mandatory in whatever indoor spaces?”
The prime minister was forced to confirm that yes, this meant the return of mandatory masks, saying: “On face coverings, what we’re looking at is retail and transport just going back to where you have to wear them in retail settings or on public transport.
“But the health secretary, Saj, will be setting out more in the course of the next day or so.”
The measures, Prime Minister Johnson said, are “temporary and precautionary”.
The prime minister announced during his speech other “targetted and proportionate” measures, “as a precaution while we find out more” about the virus, including a testing regime of arrivals from across the whole world, where travellers must take a PCR test by the end of the second day of their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result. People will not be stopped from undertaking international travel, however.
All contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of Omicron will be told to self-isolate for ten days, “regardless of your vaccination status”.
“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,” Mr Johnson said, as he urged more people to be vaccinated and boosted, announcing his government vaccine committee will look at the possibility of widening access to boosters to as many people as possible.
“The measures that we are taking today, including on our borders, on facemasks, are temporary and precautionary. We will review them in three weeks. At that point, we should have much greater information about the continuing effectiveness of our 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 the seeding of the spread of this new variant and to maximise our defences so that we protect the gains we worked for so hard and so that we can continue to save lives,” the prime minister concluded.