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Face masks again mandatory in England amid Omicron variant spread

Face masks again mandatory in England amid Omicron variant spread

Commuters in Canary Wharf underground tube station wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, on Nov 30, 2021. (Photo: Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

LONDON: New measures to combat the new Omicron COVID-19 variant came into force in England on Tuesday (Nov 30), with face coverings again compulsory in shops and on public transport.

From Tuesday morning, all travellers returning to the UK must also take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result. Previously they had been able to take a lateral flow test and there was no requirement to isolate.

The reintroduction of mandatory face masks brings England closer in line with the rest of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — which had not relaxed coronavirus restrictions as much as England had done since the summer.

About 14 cases of the Omicron variant have so far been identified across the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new measures will “buy us time in the face” of the new variant.

Johnson’s government announced on Monday that it is expanding its booster vaccine programme, with a booster dose to be offered to all those over 18 years old. The shots will be offered three months after people had their second jab.

Up until now, only people 40 years old or over and those deemed clinically vulnerable were eligible for the booster shot.

The change in advice means around 13 million more people will be eligible for the vaccine. So far, the UK has given about 17.8 million booster shots.

Mr Johnson said it was likely booster shots would increase protection against severe disease from the new Omicron variant even if effectiveness against infection was reduced.

"The answer is everywhere and always to get the booster because we think it's overwhelmingly likely that the booster (and) getting vaccinated will give you more protection," he told broadcasters.

Asked about Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel's comments that there was likely to be a "material drop" in vaccine effectiveness with Omicron, Johnson said Bancel was "probably right" but stressed that it did not mean that vaccines would be rendered totally ineffective.

"He's not necessarily saying that this will mean that the vaccines are ineffective against serious illness or death. But they may be less effective in preventing transmission," he said.

"We see some evidence from South Africa that ... Omicron is transmitted between people who have been vaccinated, but it's not clear to what extent this means that you're going to get a severe case of Omicron."

Jenny Harries, who heads the UK Health Security Agency, said that while there was still uncertainty in understanding the Omicron variant, officials hope that the expansion of the booster shot roll-out will “to some extent counter the potential drop in vaccine effectiveness we might find with this variant”.

She also urged people to be cautious and reduce socialising over the festive season if possible.

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Source: AP/Reuters/mi