Omicron: Masks and travel tests will be kept into New Year without MPs’ vote if necessary

Curbs in England can be extended – or beefed up – after Commons recess starts next week, No 10 says

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 06 December 2021 15:27
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Laws requiring mask-wearing and costly travel tests will remain in place into the New Year without a Commons vote if necessary, No 10 says.

Ministers had vowed to lift the Covid restrictions before Christmas if possible – but their own scientific advisers have warned it will take longer to assess the threat from the omicron variant.

Now Boris Johnson’s spokesman has said a decision can be taken to extend the curbs in England – or even to beef them up further – after MPs leave Westminster for their Christmas break, late next week.

“We do have the ability to take public health decisions in the interest of public health during recess, as the public will expect,” he said.

MPs will be updated next week, before the Commons recess begins on 16 December, and No 10 says it is “confident” it will have fresh data on the omicron threat by then.

But the spokesman admitted: “I can’t get into hypotheticals about what might happen during any future recess period.”

The statement will increase pressure from Conservative MPs for the Commons to postpone its recess, after dozens rebelled in last week’s vote.

On Tuesday, travel rules will be tightened with pre-departure tests to enter the UK, but the spokesman denied that meant it is inevitable that curbs will be needed for longer than the three weeks originally announced.

“We simply don’t have sufficient data, and neither does the rest of the world, to decide what the correct approach will be during the Christmas period and beyond,” he argued.

Face coverings are required in takeaways, post offices, banks and building societies, beauty premises and pharmacists, as well as in shops and on public transport and in taxis.

People who refuse will be fined an initial £200, rising to £400 for a second offence and £800 for a third – although a minister agreed shops should not enforce the crackdown.

The prime minister said the emergency regulations should not stay in place “a minute longer” than the three weeks announced.

The third strand of the emergency measures, announced on 27 November, mean confirmed and “suspected” contacts of omicron cases must isolate for 10 days, until the danger from its mutations are known.

But the government has declined to say what proportion of positive tests are sequenced to identify if they are omicron or not – and No 10 acknowledged only 50 per cent of testing sites have the capability.

He defended the government’s record, saying: “We have among the highest, if not the highest, sequencing capacity in the world.

“We are confident that our surveillance approach is sufficient to spot potential omicron cases.

“And that’s what we are doing currently, working back through potential omicron cases and confirming them, and we’ve seen a number of cases identified.”

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