People in England should return to wearing face masks in all indoor settings, including pubs, after the emergence of the Omicron COVID variant, Labour has said.
The government has said that masks must be worn on public transport and in shops from Tuesday, but the opposition wants the measures to be extended to hospitality venues, including bars and restaurants.
One transport union has warned of a “high degree of non-compliance” because of the government’s “inconsistent” messaging on face masks.
It has been reported that people who refuse to wear masks on public transport and in shops could be fined £200.
The Daily Telegraph said fines would double each time they break the reinstated law, which was in force in the last COVID-19 lockdown, up to a maximum of £6,400.
On Monday, six Omicron cases were identified in Scotland, after three cases of the new variant, which has about 30 mutations, were detected in England.
Watch: Face masks return but families told to plan 'as normal' for Christmas
The new variant was reported to the World Health Organizaton (WHO) from South Africa last week.
The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is set to advise later on Monday that millions more people should be offered booster jabs.
On Monday, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said people should be wearing face coverings at indoor hospitality venues, including pubs, and criticised prime minister Boris Johnson for not always wearing one in public spaces.
“We think we should be encouraging people to wear masks when we’re all mixing indoors, as much as possible,” she told BBC Breakfast.
“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.”
Rayner later told Sky News: “We think that in hospitality settings that people should be wearing a mask.
“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.”
But junior health minister Edward Argar said the decision not to make mask-wearing compulsory in pubs was down to the “nature of the venue”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “In a pub, you’re drinking. You can’t do that if you’re wearing a mask.
“And in restaurants, you’re normally seated at your table to give your order, you stay at your table with your group of friends or your partner or whoever you’re there with, and similarly in pubs you are normally – even when you’re standing up rather than sitting down – you’re drinking.
“And therefore it’s in the nature of the hospitality industry, the hospitality trade. And therefore, we think this is a proportionate and reasonable way to put in a precaution to give us that time to better understand this variant by slowing down the seeding and the spreading of it.”
On Sunday, Bobby Morton, the Unite union’s national officer for passenger transport, said: “It is not sufficient to announce that face masks will once again become compulsory, this policy has got to be fully enforced in order to protect public health.
“The government’s previous inconsistent messaging on face mask wearing is almost certainly going to result in a high degree of non-compliance.”
Professor Greg Towers, from the division of infection and immunity at University College London, warned on Monday: “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.”
He told Times Radio: “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.”
And Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of council at the British Medical Association, called for hospitality staff to be required to wear masks when servicing customers.
He told ITV’s 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, maybe a few feet away, and you’re speaking perhaps loudly, you reduce the chance of infecting others.”
The JCVI is expected to make a decision within hours on expanding the booster programme.
Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, acknowledged it was “very likely” that further cases of Omicron would be discovered in the coming days.
But health secretary Sajid Javid told families they should plan for a “great” Christmas “as normal” and insisted it was “nowhere near” time to reintroduce social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance.
JCVI deputy chairman, Professor Anthony Harnden, said extending the age range for boosters and reducing the gap between second and third doses was “a sensible strategy”.
Watch: What do we know about the Omicron variant?