England has reintroduced mask mandates as the Omicron variant spreads — and I felt safer than I have in months

Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
I went shopping in Leeds, a large city in northern England, on Tuesday – the day that the country reintroduced a mask mandate amid the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. Grace Dean/Insider
  • England reintroduced a mask mandate on Tuesday amid the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
  • I went shopping and took three trains that day. It was great to see people wearing masks again.
  • I felt safer than I had done in months.

I went shopping in Leeds, a large city in northern England, on Tuesday – the day that the country reintroduced a mask mandate amid the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
After more than four months without a government-mandated mask requirement, people now have to wear masks in shops and shopping centres, in transport hubs, and on public transport, unless exempt.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
A large sign at Leeds train station reminded passengers that they needed to wear masks again.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
I had to take three trains that day, and a lot of people wore masks …
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
… but it seemed like a a lot of people didn’t realize that the mandate applied to the train station, too.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
This could have partly been because the station is in a very large, open building, which made it feel well ventilated.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
Some shoppers walking round the city center wore masks, but most didn’t.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
The same was true of the shopping center I went to.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
Again, this could have been because of the high ceilings which made the mall seem like it was open air. Aside from protection from the weather, you could barely tell that you were indoors.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
Signs on a lot of the stores reminded shoppers to don their masks. At the Marks and Spencers I went to, a customer made a beeline straight for the checkouts to ask whether they had any disposable face masks available for free because she had forgotten that the mask mandate was being reintroduced.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
Around half of the stores didn’t have signs reminding customers about the new rules …
Victoria's Secret Leeds
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
… while others just had signs telling people to stay home if they had any symptoms of the coronavirus.
Victoria's Secret Pink Leeds
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
Somewhat surprisingly, the government’s new mask rules don’t apply to venues like cinemas, libraries, and places of worship — and therefore, remain optional. This is despite the fact that people spend long periods there and often come into contact with others.
Cineworld London
A Cineworld in London. Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
The government does, however, encourage people to wear masks in places “which are crowded and enclosed and where you may come into contact with people you do not normally meet,” without requiring it.
Shoppers wearing facemasks as a preventive measure against the spread of covid-19 walk along Regent Street, London.
Shoppers wearing face masks on Regent Street, London. Pietro Recchia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
The government has kept changing England’s mask, lockdown, and social-distancing rules during the pandemic. Because of this, they’ve been a headache for some people to follow.
Leeds mask
Leeds city center in August. Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures via Getty Images
The government had removed England’s mask mandate on July 19, meaning that people were no longer required to wear masks in stores and on public transport.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds station on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
But many individual transport providers set their own mask policies, and I always wore mine while travelling.
Face mask
Wearing a mask after getting off the train. Grace Dean/Insider
Transport for London, for example, has been mandating that people wear masks, including on the Tube.
Commuters with and without face coverings ride a tube train at Stratford underground station in east London on December 1, 2021.
Commuters at Stratford underground station in east London on December 1, 2021. Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images
Source: BBC
And Nexus, which operates the Tyne and Wear Metro in North-East England, mandated face masks, though most passengers didn’t wear them when I rode on its subways. I’ve travelled on trains frequently throughout the pandemic, and noticed less than a quarter of passengers on public transport wearing masks.
Metro North East England Newcastle Sunderland
Passengers on the Tyne and Wear Metro in September. Grace Dean/Insider
Source: Insider
This included a train between Manchester and Leeds that I traveled on on Sunday, just two days before the mandate was reintroduced. The train was horrifically overcrowded due to an earlier cancellation, and we were rammed in like sardines, but very few passengers wore masks, even though the transport provider had asked people to wear them.
Face mask
I traveled on a horrifically overcrowded train, and very few passengers wore masks. Grace Dean/Insider
After the government lifted the mask mandate in July, many stores, meanwhile, replaced their signs mandating masks with ones instead saying things like: “Customers are still welcome to wear masks.” Some did wear masks, but many didn’t.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
This British grocer, for example, had signs encouraging shoppers to wear masks “if you can.”
Tesco mask
A sign outside a Tesco asked that members of the public wear masks when shopping in their stores on July 28, 2021 in Leeds. Daniel Harvey Gonzalez/In Pictures via Getty Images
But England has brought back its mask mandate after the UK identified its first cases of the Omicron variant last week. It’s also reintroducing testing mandates for international travelers.
Boris Johnson
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Reuters
Sources: Insider, Insider
The US has also restricted travel from some African countries and is moving to require all international travelers to produce negative COVID-19 tests. The head of the NIH has also recommended that people wear face masks amid fears of the Omicron variant.
Joe Biden
President Joe Biden. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Sources: Insider, Insider
In comparison to lockdowns, curfews, and border closures, mask mandates have very few economic impacts. Businesses can stay open and people can behave largely as usual, but they just have to wear a mask.
Woman wearing face mask holds up pink turtleneck sweater while clothes shopping
Woman wearing face mask holds up pink turtleneck sweater while clothes shopping. Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images
And wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways of reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
A woman in a face mask and red T-shirt scans groceries at a check-out counter.
A Boyer’s cashier scans a customers groceries in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images
Source: Insider
I was really relieved that the mask mandate was reintroduced, and when I went shopping in Leeds city center and rode on the train I felt safer than I have done in months.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate.
Leeds city center on the day England reintroduced a mask mandate. Grace Dean/Insider