FACE mask restrictions are set to return in shops AND on public transport in England as fears over the mutant Omicron Covid variant grow.
Boris Johnson announced the added restrictions this evening after two cases of the dreaded super-spreading strain were reported in Essex and Nottingham.
The two cases - which are currently isolating - are said to be linked to travel in South Africa.
And as fears mount over a second Christmas lockdown, face masks will once again be made mandatory.
The latest clampdown will require everyone in shops, museums and public transport in England to wear a face covering - unless they are medically exempt.
The restrictions, which do not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, also mark a screeching U-Turn in England's roadmap out of lockdown.
Brits were finally allowed to fling off their masks on July 19 this year, as the nation celebrated Freedom Day and an end to all restrictions.
While the Government has still recommend masks in certain situations, businesses and individuals were largely allowed to decide when they did and didn't cover up.
The picture appeared far bleaker for England today, as Health Secretary Sajid Javid today confirmed two people had tested positive for the Omicron super strain in England.
Mr Javid said the two people who tested positive had links to travel in South Africa where Omicron has seen an explosion of cases.
He added targeted testing is now being carried out in Britain, as travel restrictions were set to be introduced for Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.
Announcing the news, Mr Javid told Sky News: "Late last night I was contacted by the UK Health Security Agency.
"I was informed that they have detected two cases of this new variant, Omicron, in the United Kingdom.
"One in Chelmsford, the other in Nottingham."
It comes after Senior Government scientists warned the mutant Omicron variant was the “worst variant they have seen so far” – with vaccines expected to be at least a third less effective against it.
Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said the variant could be “of real concern” as 32 mutations in its spike protein could enable it to evade a person’s immune system more easily and spread to more people.
On Twitter, he said the variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile” that could make it more contagious than any other variant so far.
Sajid Javid said this week the new variant identified in South Africa “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain and added “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.
And Professor Chris Whitty today urged people to "take sensible precautions" as scientists work to analyse any "possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines" in light of the Omicron strain.
The Chief Medical Officer said: “We will continue to work closely with the international community to quickly gather and analyse information on this variant to understand any possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.
“It is important that everyone takes sensible precautions – get a PCR test if you have symptoms, isolate when asked, wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces, ventilate rooms, get your vaccine and boosters as soon as you can.”
It became compulsory to wear a face covering on public transport in the UK on June 15, 2020.
Wearing a face mask in shops became compulsory on July 24, 2020.
After the restrictions lifted, some businesses like Transport For London continued to ask customers to wear face coverings.
Children under the age of 11 and people with breathing problems, mental illness, and/or physical disabilities are exempt from wearing masks.
Carrying an exemption card or badge is a personal choice and is not required by law.