THERE are just three weeks to save Christmas as a raft of new restrictions are brought in today to quell a worrying new super-strain of Covid.
Millions more Brits can now get booster vaccines, while compulsory face masks are back in shops and on public transport, and anyone heading away on holiday will face PCR tests on their return.
Officials are desperately scrambling to stop the spread of the Omicron mutation, which is feared to be more transmissible than Delta. There are also concerns it could make jabs less effective.
Eleven cases of the variant have now been reported in the UK, with two more infections emerging in London and six in Scotland.
Ministers say Christmas should go ahead as planned, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid telling the nation at the weekend that we're "nowhere near" a full lockdown yet.
But he also warned more cases are expected in the coming days.
"In this race between vaccines and virus, this variant may have given the virus extra legs," he said.
"Our strategy is to buy time and strengthen defences while scientists learn more."
Meanwhile, Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Sky News there's "good cause to be concerned".
MASKS ARE BACK
Warning that it will be "impossible" to stop the spread, he said the most important action Brits can take is to get the jab and wear a mask.
The variant reached the UK less than a week after being reported as a concern in African countries.
To bolster defences, millions more people are now eligible for a booster jab after the gap between the second and third dose was lowered from six months to three.
And the age at which people can book a booster jab was lowered from 40 to anyone who is 18 years old or more.
It means an extra 13m people are eligible for a third shot before the end of the year.
Over-50s and clinically vulnerable Brits have been able to get boosters since September with anyone aged 40 to 49 eligible since November 15.
The UK's vaccine advisory body the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) confirmed the move yesterday.
And kids aged 12 to 15 will also be offered a second dose of the vaccine, in an attempt to shore up the nation’s immunity in the face of the worrying new strain.
Mandatory mask-wearing is also returning in public transport and shops from today.
Anyone who fails to wear a face covering in shops or on buses, trains or the Tube could be fined up to £6,400 – with the rules coming into effect at 4am tomorrow.
Fines of £200 will be dished out to people who don't wear a face mask under new Government rules .
A second offence would see the penalty leap £400, with £800 on the third occasion up to a maximum fine of £6,400.
Face masks must also be worn in hairdressers, nail salons, banks and post offices in England.
But they won't be mandatory in hospitality settings like bars and restaurants or entertainment venues such as cinemas and theatres.
International travel rules have also been tightened in a bid to stem the spread of Omicron.
Ten more countries were placed on the red list, with only British or Irish citizens and UK residents allowed to enter the UK from these destinations.
Anyone doing so must quarantine in a Government hotel for 10 days upon arrival in the UK.
Passengers arriving in the UK from non-red list countries after 4am today must take a day-two PCR test and self-isolate until they get a negative result.
And self-isolation rules will be brought back for contacts of people who test positive for Omicron.
Those who have been in touch with someone who gets the new variant will have to self-quarantine for 10 days even if they're vaccinated.
The new curbs are set to be reviewed after three weeks as scientists scramble to learn more about Omicron.
MPs will vote on the new restrictions in the next few days.
Boris Johnson reassured the nation the rules are "temporary" in an address on Saturday night.
They will be reviewed in three weeks.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam described the variant as the "new kid on the block", warning scientists from around the world have been left concerned.
He told the nation at a Downing Street briefing: "Its always been the case that at some point, we’ll get a variant that gives us heightened concern.
"We are at that moment with Omicron."
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