MPs have approved tougher Covid rules that came into force overnight making masks mandatory in more places in England and changing isolation requirements due to concern over the Omicron variant.
Parliament had 28 days from the new regulations coming into effect to formally endorse the plans announced by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, over the weekend, designed to limit the spread of the newly discovered variant, which some scientists fear could be much more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.
The first measure, making the wearing of face coverings mandatory in shops and on public transport, was passed by 434 votes to 24. It will expire on 20 December 2021 – shortly after parliament breaks up for the Christmas recess.
The second measure, which will force close contacts of a positive Covid case carrying the Omicron variant to isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccine status, amends existing regulations on isolation, due to expire in mid-March 2022. It was passed by 431 votes to 36.
Among the dozens of Conservative rebels were Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, and the former cabinet minister Esther McVey. They were joined by three DUP MPs.
Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, said Omicron was an “emerging threat, one that is familiar but not yet well known” and called the measures “proportionate, precautionary and balanced”.
There were eight more cases of the Omicron variant discovered in the UK on Tuesday, taking the total in England to 13 and to nine in Scotland.
Alex Norris, the shadow public health minister, said it was “right to be acting urgently” but that it was sad to be debating the measures “after the fact”, adding parliamentary approval of Covid rules was vital to instil public confidence.
Some Conservative MPs were worried that the government had said people would be told to isolate for simply a “suspected” case of close contact with someone who had Omicron, without adequately defining what suspected meant.
Brady raised “serious concerns” about the “efficacy of what is being proposed”, and warned against “mission creep”.
Steve Brine, a former health minister, said the isolation rule change “bothers me a great deal more” than extending the use of masks. He said if a child in a class of 30 was a suspected close contact of someone with the Omicron variant, he feared that would mean all remaining members of the class would also have to stay at home.
He said: “We’re not just looking at a pingdemic in our economy and in our businesses, we’re looking at a pingdemic that’s going to devastate education again.”
He also said there was “an element of the Salem witch trials” about the government’s failure to define a “suspected” Omicron case, and that he was concerned about “the chilling effect” of the regulations on people’s behaviour.
Craig Mackinlay, another Tory MP, said it was “madness” to move through a cycle of restrictions, vaccines and accompanying freedoms, followed by the emergence of variants and new restrictions.
The former government chief whip Mark Harper also voiced concern that the stricter rules on face masks could be extended when parliament was in recess, and said it would be unacceptable for ministers to do so “by decree”, calling for the Commons to be recalled to vote on any such measures.
Other Tory backbenchers voiced concern the measures approved on Tuesday were a “gateway to lockdown over Christmas”.
Johnson has promised they will be reviewed three weeks from his announcement on Saturday.