COVID-19: Face masks to be mandatory as Omicron variant hits the UK

Failure to wear a mask will result in a £200 fine for the first offence, but this charge will then double for any further rule breaks.

The Government is bringing back mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport from Tuesday after the first cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 were identified in the UK.

Failure to wear a face mask in shops and on public transport in England will be punishable by hefty fines under the new rules.

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The Omicron COVID-19 strain, first detected in South Africa, has been dubbed the “worst ever” coronavirus mutation, but it is hoped a crackdown on restrictions will help to prevent further spread.

It has also been announced that all international arrivals will have to take a PCR test by the end of their second day in the UK.

The new rules come as the confirmed number Omicron cases in the UK begins to increase.

Six cases of the COVID-19 variant have been identified in Scotland, while three have been recorded in England.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Omicron strain, designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, appears to spread “very rapidly” and can transmit between people who are fully vaccinated.

It is also feared that it may partially reduce the protection offered by existing vaccines.

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.

Rule changes in England

Downing Street has confirmed that face masks will be made mandatory in all shops in England, and on public transport, from 04:00 on Tuesday, 30 November.

This will bring the country back in line with the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but masks will not be required in pubs or restaurants, or at concerts or events.

The new rules will be enforceable by a penalty, meaning those who fail to comply will be fined.

Failure to wear a mask will result in a £200 fine for the first offence, but this charge will then double for any further rule breaks.

As such, a second offence will be punishable by £400, a third will cost £800, with fines continuing to climb up to £6,400.

However, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that people can half their fine by paying within the first two weeks, as was the case last year.

Speaking to Sky News 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.”

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has also recommended that face masks should be worn by staff, visitors and pupils in Year 7 and above in communal areas in schools, colleges and universities, such as corridors, canteens and halls.

Christmas should be ‘normal’

While COVID-19 measures are being tightened to combat the spread of the Omicron variant, Mr Javid has told families to plan for a great Christmas “as normal”.

He insisted that it was “nowhere near” time to reintroduce social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance, and the government has so far stopped short of introducing its winter plan B to tackle coronavirus.

Speaking on Sky News, he said: “We know now those types of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as impact on mental health.

“So, if one was to make decisions like that they would have to be done very, very carefully and we’re not there yet, we’re nowhere near that.”

However, the government is expected to receive new advice “imminently” from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) about extending booster vaccines to everyone over the age of 18.

The JCVI is also considering whether second doses should be offered to 12- to 15-year-olds, and if the waiting time before a booster jab could be reduced.

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”.