The government has issued confusing advice to clinically vulnerable people over whether they should meet up with family and friends over Christmas.
The emergence of the Omicron variant, which early data suggests could be more transmissible and reduce the effectiveness of our current vaccines, has signalled the return of new COVID rules around masks.
The government has been placed on the back foot in recent days, with ministers contradicting themselves as to whether people should “snog under the mistletoe” at Christmas parties.
And there was further confusion this week when the prime minister's spokesperson said there was 'existing advice' for the clinically vulnerable, before later adding that the guidelines are 'broadly the same as for everyone else' and finally saying shielders should 'use their own judgment' on attending festive gatherings.
The position of millions of shielders throughout the pandemic has been a difficult one, many living in isolation and unable to see relatives or loved ones for the best part of a year after the government told them to stay at home as much as possible.
Despite restrictions for those isolating ending on 19 July, government figures from November reveal 22% of the most clinically vulnerable have continued to shield.
Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, the prime minister's spokesperson said there was existing advice for the clinically vulnerable.
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“There is already existing advice for those that are shielding and clearly anyone who is significantly worried can contact the NHS if they need bespoke advice as they have been throughout.
“Of course, we will provide updated advice and there’ll be updated clinical advice should that be necessary.”
However, pressed again on Thursday to outline the specific guidance, the spokesperson said it was “broadly” the same as for everyone else on issues like attending Christmas parties.
“That’s broadly correct, yes,” he said. “There’s specific guidance that’s available, and that hasn’t changed.”
He added that the measures – including mask-wearing on public transport and in shops – introduced are primarily “precautionary” measures in response to the risks posed by the Omicron variant.
“We are in a position where people can use their individual judgement, of course – you would want to take into account your personal circumstances.
“I can’t speak for the NHS, but the guidance post-step four has not changed as I’ve said there is specific limited restrictions we’ve placed on a precautionary basis.”
The comments from Number 10 join the growing list of mixed messaging from the government.
Read more: One in five clinically extremely vulnerable people still shielding – ONS 'Anger as government insists shielding not necessary for COVID vulnerable
On Monday, the government's own expert, chief executive of the UK Health Security Authority Jenny Harries, said that people should avoid unnecessary socialising in the coming weeks – which was rebuffed by the prime minister.
“We’re not going to change the overall guidance,” he said. “We don’t think that’s necessary. We don’t see anything to suggest that we need to go, for instance, to Plan B.”
According to the Guardian, the Home Office has urged staff to limit numbers attending Christmas parties in the office at the same time as Boris Johnson has stressed “people shouldn't be cancelling” events.
The prime minister is also facing a significant blow to his authority over claims Downing Street held parties while the rest of the country was in lockdown last Christmas.
The UK reported its highest number of COVID cases since July 2021 on Thursday, with 53,945 new cases and 141 more deaths.
The government has accelerated the national booster programme in recent days, with under 40s now eligible for their third jabs.
Dozens of countries have introduced travel restrictions and tightened COVID rules, with countries like Israel and Japan closing their borders altogether amid fears the new variant may have some resistance to vaccines or may be more transmissible. On Thursday, Germany announced a de facto lockdown for those who are unvaccinated.
Scientists have expressed concern about the variant due to its over 50 mutations, which could mean it could reduce the efficacy of current vaccines
Yahoo News UK approached the department for health and social care (DHSC) for clarification on guidance for people in the extremely clinically vulnerable group.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “We announced an end to the shielding programme based on the success of the COVID-19 vaccination programme in reducing serious illness and death from COVID-19 and the emergence of proven treatments.
“We have followed the JCVI advice to offer third top-up jabs – and shortly to offer fourth primary doses – of the vaccine to those with severely weakened immune systems and would encourage those who remain at higher risk to discuss any necessary precautions with their specialist as part of their routine care.”
Watch: PM tells people not to cancel Christmas parties amid Omicron riseInternet Explorer Channel Network