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Back to wearing masks in shops: Britain will be hit by new curbs to combat the new Omicron variant

Britain will be hit by new travel restrictions, heightened testing and the return of compulsory facemasks in shops under new curbs announced by Boris Johnson last night to combat the new Omicron variant of Covid.

Tens of thousands of winter holidays will be affected as those returning from anywhere abroad must take PCR tests and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

As it emerged that one of the two people infected with the Omicron variant in the UK was double-jabbed, scientists at Britain's top secret Porton Down laboratory were studying swabs from the cases to determine how the 'super mutant' strain reacts to vaccines.

In another significant development, it was announced that anyone who comes into contact with someone infected with the new variant must self-isolate for ten days, regardless of their vaccination status.

Outlined by a businesslike Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference last night, the new rules – set to be in place for at least three weeks – were met with dismay by the travel industry. 

A raft of new Covid rules were announced by PM Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference on Saturday (pictured)

Further details, including when the measures will come into force, are expected to be revealed by Ministers today

The return of mandatory facemasks in shops and on public transport was one of the new measures announced on Saturday 

One chief executive described it as the 'worst Christmas present ever'.

Further details, including when the measures will come into force, are expected to be revealed by Ministers today. 

It is understood that Scotland will impose similar restrictions.

In other developments yesterday:

  • Mr Johnson said that facemasks must also be worn on all public transport – but said there are no plans to extend the restrictions to pubs, restaurants or cinemas;
  • It emerged that the two UK cases – in Nottingham and Brentwood, Essex – are linked, with both people thought to have recently returned from southern Africa;
  • Heathrow announced it will now reopen its Terminal 4 arrivals hall for passengers arriving from red-list countries, who will be required to go to quarantine hotels;
  • Officials added four more southern African countries – Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia – to the red list, taking the total to ten alongside South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Zimababwe and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), which were put on the list on Friday.

Mr Johnson offered something of an apology to travellers for the new restrictions, saying: 'I'm afraid [they] may sound tough but that is just the way it's got to be.'

He described the rules on masks and border controls as 'targeted and proportionate measures' needed to give scientists time to understand how transmissible the Omicron variant was and how much it might evade vaccine protection.

'First, we need to slow down the seeding of this variant in our country,' he said. 

'We need to buy time for our scientists to understand exactly what we are dealing with, and for us to get more people vaccinated and– above all – to get more people boosted; as well as to help our NHS prepare in what is an already challenging winter.'

While stressing that the Government is 'not going to stop people travelling', he said: 'We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.'

In practice, that is likely to mean travellers will have to self-isolate for at least two days – and possibly longer – as most PCR tests take a minimum of 24 hours to come back. Day two testing packages typically cost between £90 and £100, meaning a family of five faces an added cost of £500 for a trip abroad.

Another 39,567 Covid cases and 131 deaths were recorded in the UK today. Department of Health officials posted nearly 40,000 daily infections – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 last Saturday – after Sajid Javid announced that two cases of the 'monstrous' new Covid variant were detected. The number of people who have died 28 days after testing positive for Covid has also fallen by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week

Samples from British cases tested at chemical war lab

By Stephen Adams Medical Editor for the Mail on Sunday

Public health officials were last night in a race to track down anyone who has been in contact with Britain's first confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

The two individuals, one from Nottingham and the other from Brentwood, Essex, are understood to have become infected in southern Africa, where the strain was first identified.

Health officials said 'all members of their households are being tested and told to self- isolate', and that wider contact tracing was also under way. 

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which took over the Covid protection role from Public Health England in October, has so far provided no details about when and where the two arrived back in the UK.

The two cases are 'linked' but officials would not say whether this meant that they were on a trip abroad together, were sat close to each other on a plane or were associated in some other way. 

Samples of the virus taken from the pair have been sent to the agency's top security Porton Down site. Separately, other samples are being flown in bio-secure vials from South Africa.

Vaccine experts from the Oxford-AstraZeneca team and Pfizer have also been given access to the samples to fast-track their assessment of whether Omicron can side-step the protection afforded by current vaccines. 

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said tour operators, travel agents and airlines were 'deeply concerned' by the new travel bans, which threaten the industry's fragile recovery.

'The red list has come back and hotel quarantine has come back. Just as we thought we'd moved on from that, the industry has the worst Christmas present ever,' he said. 

'Ministers have left consumers in utter limbo because why would you take the risk of booking holidays knowing the Government could put in place more restrictions? 

'This leaves the industry teetering on a cliff-edge again.'

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said it will be three weeks before the Government reviews the travel ban – which would be December 17. 

Mr Charles said that would lead to cancelled holidays as 'people can't make a decision so close Christmas'.

Willie Walsh, the former boss of British Airways' parent company IAG, said: 'Governments are responding to the risks of the new coronavirus variant in emergency mode, creating fear among the travelling public. 

'We must use the experience of the last two years to move to a co-ordinated approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine. 

'Travel restrictions are not a long-term solution to control Covid variants.'

Mr Johnson insisted the new measures were 'temporary and precautionary' and would be reviewed in three weeks.

He added: 'At that point we should have much greater information about the continuing effectiveness of our vaccines. 

'I very much hope 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 we protect the gains we have worked for so hard for and so that we can continue to save lives.'

During the press conference, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty strongly suggested that booster jabs currently available to the over-40s would be extended to all over 18s. 

He also gave a hint that 12 to 15-year-olds will get a second vaccine dose too. This group have only been offered a single dose so far, amid concerns about side-effects.

Prof Whitty said there were 'now significant outbreaks' in this age group in schools, so second doses 'clearly should be looked at'.