PM gives Christmas parties the green light after health chief warns against unnecessary socialising

Boris Johnson has urged people not to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays despite a health chief encouraging Britons to cut back on unnecessary socialising ahead of the festive season.

PM gives Christmas parties the green light after health chief warns against unnecessary socialising
© Getty Cutting social contact will help slow the spread of the new Omicron variant, says the head of the UK’s Health Security Agency

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said everyone can do their bit by reducing the number of social contacts they have – and by “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to”.

But the PM rejected Dr Harries’ call, insisting that he had already put in place a package of “balanced and proportionate measures” in response to the threat posed by the new Omicron variant.

PM gives Christmas parties the green light after health chief warns against unnecessary socialising
© Reuters Shoppers in Regent Street

Speaking at a Downing Street news briefing, Mr Johnson said: “We don’t want people to cancel such events and we think that, overwhelmingly, the best thing for kids is to be at school, as I have said many times throughout this pandemic.

“What we are doing is trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach to the particular risk that seems to be posed by Omicron – certainly is posed by Omicron – focused, in particular, on measures at the border.”

PM gives Christmas parties the green light after health chief warns against unnecessary socialising
© PA Dr Jenny Harries said reducing our social contacts ‘a little bit’ will ‘help to keep the virus at bay’

Live COVID updates from the UK and world

The PM had previously told reporters that “it is always sensible to be careful”.

Speaking earlier on Monday, Dr Harries had said: “If we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.”

Her comments caused alarm among many Conservative MPs who later raised their concern in the Commons.

One former Conservative minister said the government was “facing chaos” following Ms Harries’ comments.

In a question to Health Minister Maggie Throup, Steve Baker said: “Is (Ms Throup) seriously saying that it is not for ministers to have any particular view on officials employed within the department going out and taking a position which is at odds with the government’s public policy decision?

“Because if that really is now the policy we have got, that even employees of departments can take their own personal positions, we really are facing chaos and the overturning of longstanding government principles.”

Later on, Mr Baker told the Commons voting on the new measures which he opposed – including the mandatory wearing of face masks in shops and on public transport – was a “fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell”.

Meanwhile, Steve Brine MP said: “If that’s the policy of the government then we are in completely different territory, and the regulations that we’re debating before us here today, I don’t even know where to start with them because they’re the fly on the back of the rhinoceros.”

He added: “There’s nothing in these regulations that says you’ve got to cancel Christmas parties, unless Dr Harries, of course, is in charge, but there’s everything in the language and the narrative that’s coming out of government right now that is causing Christmas parties to be cancelled.”

Another Conservative, former chief whip Mark Harper, asked Ms Throup to “be clear that Dr Harries was only speaking for herself” and not the government.

Ms Throup replied that she “cannot speak for any other person who goes on the airwaves”.

Elsewhere, Greater Manchester night-time economy adviser Sacha Lord warned that many restaurants are “experiencing Xmas party cancellations” following the mixed messaging.

“Most of these businesses desperately needed a good December. The knock on effect will be catastrophic. Businesses, jobs, supply chain. A blow to a devastating year,” he wrote in a tweet.

And Clive Watson, chief executive of the City Pub Group, which owns 45 pubs across England and Wales, said some corporate Christmas bookings have been postponed until the New Year.

“We’ve had some larger parties call up and not cancel – but postpone until January or February,” he told Sky News.

“But from what we can see, smaller work parties and friends meeting up before Christmas is still fine.”

More than 20 cases of the new Omicron variant have so far been identified across the UK, though experts expect this number to rise in the coming days.

It is thought the variant could be more transmissible and may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, though England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has said jabs may still prevent severe disease.

Asked what is needed for further measures to come in, Dr Harries told BBC Breakfast that experts will be looking at how the virus works and behaves, “and then, obviously, if it does start causing serious illness – and we have had no hospitalisations in the UK yet – then we’ll be looking at the characteristics of individuals who are admitted to hospital”.

In October, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said that Plan B measures should be implemented in unison to have the biggest effect in tackling any surge in coronavirus cases.

Out of the individual measures, SAGE said working from home would have the biggest impact.

Dr Harries said the SAGE advice was to bring in working from home if there was a surge in cases but she stressed there were still only a low number of confirmed cases of Omicron.

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The PM said at Tuesday’s Downing Street briefing that reintroducing that specific measure was not necessary.

New measures to combat the new Omicron variant of coronavirus have come into force, with face coverings again compulsory in England in shops and settings such as banks, post offices, hairdressers, and on public transport.

All travellers arriving in the UK must also take a PCR test on or before day 2 and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

Meanwhile, the government confirmed earlier this week that all adults will be offered a booster vaccine – with the plan for this to happen before the end of January.

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