Ministers have been urged to take a firmer stance on mask-wearing in pubs and restaurants amid rising concern that the Omicron variant will disrupt Christmas festivities.
Face coverings become compulsory again on public transport and in shops from Tuesday and teachers and pupils in Year 7 and above are now being “strongly advised” to wear masks in communal areas outside classrooms in England.
Department for Education guidance also states that face coverings should be worn by university students and staff in communal spaces and corridors.
But some experts suggested the advice is not strong enough and have questioned why people should wear a face covering on a train or in a shop but not in a pub.
Labour said that people should be wearing face coverings at indoor hospitality venues.
And the British Medical Association (BMA) said that staff in pubs and restaurants should be required to wear face coverings when serving customers.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown pointed out that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended the wider use of masks in September.
In October, Sage said that Plan B measures would have the most effect if brought in in unison. It also warned that the single biggest measure to prevent transmission was to reinstate the work from home guidance.
It comes as officials said nine cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed across the UK.
Mr Brown told Sky News: “In September, The Sage committee recommended the wider use of masks, that has got to come in, and people have got to take the advice about hand washing, the social distancing and so on, if we’re going to avoid some of the problems that came last Christmas this Christmas.”
He said he believed the advice on masks would “change in the next few days”.
Asked if people should be told to wear masks in pubs and restaurants, Sage member Professor Sir Mark Walport told Sky News: “If you are in a small, poorly ventilated enclosed space, it makes sense to wear a mask. Clearly when you are drinking and eating it’s not possible to do that but if you’re moving around, then absolutely.
“We know that infection happens in closed spaces indoors and of course, as it gets colder, people are more likely to be indoors and they’re less likely to have the windows open.
“So if you’re going to wear masks in shops, it makes sense to wear them in other places as well.”
And Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of council at the BMA, told Good Morning Britain: “What we believe is that there should be mask-wearing in all settings which are enclosed and indoors.
“Now clearly, that doesn’t apply to people who are eating out, but it should apply to staff, for example, in restaurants and bars so that when you are close to a customer, when you’re in direct line of a customer and you’re speaking perhaps loudly, you reduce the chance of infecting others.
“This isn’t just about the public, it’s also about staff and employers as well, because if they have staff who become infected, staff who are ill and self-isolating, that will also affect the economy.”
Professor Greg Towers, from the Division of Infection and Immunity at University College London, said people needed to adhere to “easier” measures to avoid potential future lockdowns.
He told Times Radio: “If we don’t wear masks, and if we ignore social distancing rules, and if we just pretend it’s all over, then what’s going to happen is we’ll get another big wave of infection, and we’ll get put into lockdown again, so if we don’t want lockdown we’ve got to try and stop the spread by easier means like mask-wearing and social distancing.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said people should be wearing face coverings at indoor hospitality venues, adding that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has “undermined” the importance of wearing one by appearing publicly unmasked on several occasions.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, she said: “We think we should be encouraging people to wear masks when we’re all mixing indoors, as much as possible.
“So we would recommend that people do wear masks when they’re out and about, specially when they’re moving around venues.
“The Prime Minister unfortunately has undermined those messages in recent weeks, but wearing a mask can be a very protective way of supporting people in stopping the virus being able to spread as quickly.”
On wearing masks in pubs, she told Sky News: “I think people should… especially if you’re moving around the pub, people should be wearing their masks in hospitality settings.
“If you’re (in) an indoor setting, there’s no distinction between a pub, sitting in a pub, or sitting on a train, or sitting in a hospital. It’s still a venue that’s indoors and we should be taking the necessary measures to protect people around us.”
Health minister Edward Argar said the decision not to make mask-wearing compulsory in pubs was down to the “nature of the venue”.
Mr Argar told BBC Breakfast: “It’s partly in the nature of pubs and restaurants and hospitality venues where people are eating, drinking… (they) may go to a bar to order a drink, but will often then sip the drink on their way back to their table where they will be seated. It’s about striking a proportionate balance.”
Experts also stressed the importance of ventilation, particularly in the colder winter months where people were meeting more indoors.
Prof Jim Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “Beyond vaccination, ventilation is an effective measure as is universal masking.”
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