Mandatory masks could return this winter, says Sajid Javid

The health secretary has said the government may need to reintroduce mandatory face masks and advise the public to work from home, as he set out the government’s plans for coping with Covid in England through the autumn and winter.

Sajid Javid told the House of Commons: “Any responsible government must prepare for all eventualities,” as he outlined what he called the government’s “plan B” in the event that the virus surges.

He conceded that mask-wearing and vaccine passports for crowded venues could be introduced if necessary – as well as “communicating clearly and urgently to the public the need for caution”.

But he did not mention lockdowns, as he informed the MPs of what he called his “plan A” for managing the virus, “without the need for stringent economic and social restrictions”.

“We must be vigilant,” he told MPs.

More details of the government’s contingency measures have been set out in a document published alongside Javid’s statement, including plans for vaccine passports.

The prime minister announced in July that it would be compulsory to prove vaccination status before entering nightclubs and other crowded venues. The government has since backed away from the plan after a backlash from Tory MPs, but Javid confirmed it was being held in reserve.

The document says vaccine passports would be applied to all nightclubs; all indoor, crowded settings with 500 or more people such as music venues; all outdoor settings with 4,000 or more people such as festivals; and any venue with 10,000 or more people, such as big sports matches.

It acknowledges the plans may need to be implemented at short notice – and encourages businesses to introduce vaccine passports voluntarily.

The document also includes advice to the public about how they should behave as winter approaches. They are urged to meet outdoors where possible, keep windows open when meeting indoors, and think twice about activities such as singing or dancing.

“In general, the risk of catching or passing on Covid-19 is higher in crowded spaces (where there are more people who might be infectious) and in enclosed indoor spaces (where there is limited fresh air),” the document says.

“Some activities, such as singing, dancing and exercising can also increase the risk of transmission of Covid-19 as people are doing activities which generate more particles as they breathe. The risk is greatest where these factors overlap.”

The public are also cautioned to “wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings” – advice taken by very few of the Conservative MPs sitting behind Javid in a busy Commons chamber as he spoke.

The government also pointedly refuses to rule out imposing a fresh lockdown. “While the government expects that, with strong engagement from the public and businesses, these contingency measures should be sufficient to reverse a resurgence in autumn or winter, the nature of the virus means it is not possible to give guarantees,” the plan says.

“The government remains committed to taking whatever action is necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed but more harmful economic and social restrictions would only be considered as a last resort.”

Plan B would be invoked, the document says, “if the data suggests the NHS is likely to come under unsustainable pressure”.

Javid said 81% of people over 16 had received two doses of Covid vaccination, and the link between infections, hospitalisation and deaths had been “weakened significantly”, so that deaths from the current wave had been “mercifully low”.

He said the government’s plan A included five pillars: renewing efforts to maximise vaccine uptake and expanding it to 12- to 15-year-olds; maintaining the test-and-trace system, including encouraging regular asymptomatic testing; boosting funding for the NHS and social care; encouraging people to modify their behaviour, such as meeting outside; and cooperating with international partners.

Javid also confirmed the government would publish a new framework for international travel before the end of this month.

Earlier, the government’s health advisers announced their recommendation that booster jabs be delivered to the over-50s and younger people with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus. Javid confirmed he would take that advice.

Children aged between 12 and 15 will also be offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, as recommended by the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, and his colleagues.

Javid also said it was “highly likely”, that vaccination would be made compulsory for frontline NHS workers.

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