Covid: Face masks rules return in England amid Omicron spread

By Alex Kleiderman & Doug Faulkner
BBC News

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A woman wearing a mask in a train stationImage source, PA Media

Face coverings have become mandatory again on public transport and shops in England in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

People arriving in the UK from abroad will now also have to take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

It comes after 14 cases of the new variant were detected in the UK.

Boris Johnson is expected to set out plans for the booster jab programme in England at news conference later.

On Monday the government announced a major expansion of the booster jab rollout as part of efforts to help stop a potential wave of infections. They are to be offered to all over-18s in the UK, while children aged 12 to 15 will be invited for a second jab.

More local pharmacies could be used as part of the rollout and it is likely that there will be some prioritisation to ensure the vulnerable receive their top-up shots first – as with the original scheme.

Three more Omicron cases have been found in Scotland and Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said it is expected cases of the new variant will continue to rise in the coming days.

Early evidence suggests Omicron – first found in southern Africa – has a higher re-infection risk. But scientists say it will take about three weeks before it is known how the variant impacts on the effectiveness of vaccines.

Care Minister Gillian Keegan called for the British public to be “sensible” and wear a mask.

In response to supermarket bosses saying they would not tell their staff to make customers wear masks she told BBC Breakfast that it was “down to individuals” to do the right thing.

While it is still unclear the impact the new variant could have she said people should continue with their Christmas plans but be “cautious”.

The government says it will review the changes again in three weeks’ time and the health secretary told MPs they would be given a chance to debate and vote on the rule changes on masks and self-isolation.

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Analysis box by Nick Triggle, health correspondent

Scientists are agreed accelerating the booster programme is key to combatting Omicron if the worst fears are realised.

That job though now lies in the hands of the NHS.

And the challenge that it faces is that the infrastructure that was so successful in delivering the jabs in the first half of the year has been scaled back.

Three-quarters of vaccinations were delivered by GP-led teams. But many of those GP and staff have now returned to their day jobs, focussing on the flu vaccine rollout and their patients.

Around 50 mass vaccination centres have also been shut down.

Restarting any of that will not be immediate so in the short-term the easiest solution is to extend the opening hours of the remaining big centres and providing more support to high street pharmacists who are also heavily involved.

Currently around 2.5m booster jabs are being given each week – at that rate it could take around three months to provide boosters to everyone.

Halving that would give the UK the best possible chance of combatting any Omicron wave.

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Mr Javid said if it emerged that the variant was “no more dangerous than the Delta variant” then measures would not be kept in place “for a day longer than necessary” but said experience had shown it was best to act swiftly against coronavirus.

The new rules on face coverings, which began at 04:00 GMT, bring England in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where they are already mandatory on public transport and for many indoor areas.

Newly-published guidance says they should be worn in locations including shops, shopping centres, posts offices, banks, hairdressers and food takeaways, as well as on public transport.

Although the change does not require people in England to wear coverings in pubs and restaurants, they are required in hospitality venues elsewhere in the UK in some circumstances.

Speaking in the Commons, Labour’s shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan said the government should not have stopped asking the public in England to wear masks and that the rules should now be extended to include hospitality.

Another change, which has already come into effect, requires all contacts of suspected Omicron cases to self-isolate for 10 days, even if they are fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the first ministers of Scotland and Wales have called for the PCR test requirement to be changed so that everyone arriving in the UK would have to isolate for eight days.

The latest cases of the Omicron variant were detected in the Camden and Wandsworth areas of London, the UK Health Security Agency said. Like the other three cases in England, they have been linked to travel in southern Africa.

Nine cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus have now been identified in Scotland, the country’s health secretary Humza Yousaf said.

He said there are five cases in the Lanarkshire area and four in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

The average number of daily confirmed Covid cases in the UK began rising again in early November. A further 42,583 cases were reported on Monday.

Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, told BBC Breakfast there was “great uncertainty” about the Omicron variant but that it was hoped a booster vaccine dose might “to some extent, counter the potential drop in vaccine effectiveness we might find with this variant”.

She said people could also do their bit by reducing social contacts.

‘All hands on deck’

NHS England has said it will “shortly” set out how the booster vaccine programme will be expanded, including who will be prioritised and how capacity will be expanded.

Ms Keegan said that in the “next couple of days” the booster plan would be outlined to the public but said that it would likely be done in age cohorts.

She said people should wait to be contacted for their booster at the moment.

An NHS spokesman said boosters would be given in priority order and urged people to come forward “as quickly as possible” when called.

Dr Farah Jameel, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that GP practices needed to have their contractual targets paused so that they could “refocus clinical priorities” on supporting the rollout of jabs.

She said: “We are struggling to deliver everything… because we simply don’t have the workforce and we need to focus on clinical need.

“With a new risk unfolding, I think the emphasis and focus rightfully needs to be on rolling out a monumental vaccination and booster effort, so all hands on deck.”

Prof Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said a big challenge for the booster programme would be “all about speed”, describing it as a “challenging month ahead for the NHS”.

Graphic showing UK Covid statistics on 29 November 2021
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Biden says omicron variant is ’cause for concern, not a cause for panic’

President Biden

 

© Getty Images

President Biden sought to project calm and reassure that there are tools to fight the new variant in an address on Monday.

He also said officials would release more guidance on how they plan to fight the spread of COVID-19 this winter, but promised it wouldn’t include lockdowns.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said in prepared remarks at the White House. “We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed. Not chaos and confusion.”

The president acknowledged the U.S. would see confirmed cases of the latest strain of the virus “sooner or later.”

And he pleaded with Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, adding that Anthony Fauci, his top medical adviser on the pandemic, believed the existing vaccines provide at least some protection against the omicron variant.

“If you are vaccinated, but still worried about the new variant, get our booster. If you aren’t vaccinated, get that shot. Go get that first shot,” Biden said.

Modified vaccine needed? The president said the White House does not believe additional doses of the vaccine will be needed as of now, but officials are in touch with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson “to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.”

“I’m sparing no effort and removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe,” Biden said.

No  Lockdowns

President Biden said Monday that his administration was not recommending further restrictions on businesses or in-person gatherings to combat the coronavirus pandemic amid concerns about the new omicron variant.

Speaking from the Roosevelt Room, Biden described vaccinations as the best possible tool to defeat the virus and any emerging variants. He said his administration would outline a strategy to combat COVID-19 during the winter months later this week.

“On Thursday, I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter, not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more,” he said.

Biden later told reporters that “lockdowns” were off the table “for now” as his administration weighs measures to respond to the omicron variant, much about which remains unknown.

“If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there is no need for the lockdown,” Biden said.

Lockdowns refer to closures of or restrictions on businesses, schools and other in-person gatherings. The U.S. never had a nationwide lockdown like other countries, though health officials recommended certain business closures in cities and states.

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CDC strengthens booster recommendation

A healthcare worker administrates a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to a student during a vaccination clinic for ages 5 - 11 hosted by Jewel Osco in Wheeling, Ill., on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021

 

© Associated Press/Nam Y. Huh

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday strengthened its recommendation for all adults to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, citing the risks of the omicron variant.

While booster shots were approved for all adults earlier this month, the previous guidance for younger adults was only that they “may” get a booster if they wanted to. Now, the guidance has been fortified to say all adults “should” get a booster.

“Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are 6 months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or 2 months after their initial J&J vaccine,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

“The recent emergence of the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” she added.

Backstory/confusion: Booster shots have been a subject of debate among experts for months, with some saying they are not needed.

The Biden administration originally planned to roll out boosters for all adults in September, but a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee that month rejected a recommendation for boosters for all, instead initially limiting them to older and high risk people.