Covid Omicron variant: Britons told to cut socialising in run up to Christmas

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on the efforts to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the run up to Christmas

Britons have been told to cut their social contacts in the run up to Christmas, as the government seeks to reduce the impact of the new Omicron Covid variant.

The head of the UK’s Health Security Agency Dr Jenny Harries said people could help slow the spread of the mutation by "not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs".

Despite concerns that the new variant could be more transmissible and may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, a health minister has told ITV News that people should not cancel any of their Christmas plans.

"Continue with your Christmas plans, continue with your nativity plays and your Christmas parties - right now we just need to buy some time to get the actual information from the scientists", Gillian Keegan said as she urged people to get their booster jabs.

Health minister Gillian Keegan: 'Don't cancel Christmas plans...'

Her comments were echoed by the prime minister, who, when asked if nativity plays should be cancelled, said the government was not planning to change guidance on "how people should be living their lives".

The booster scheme was extended to all over-18s in a bid to tackle the new variant, with England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam saying jabs may still protect against severe illness caused by the variant, despite concerns.

Dr Harries told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that even if our “vaccines appear to be effective, but we find that the variant is more highly transmissible, having lowish grade infection, but in very large numbers of the population, (it) could still be a significant impact on our hospitals.

“And, of course, our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas, we tend to socialise more, so I think all of those will need to be taken into account.”

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Dr Harries, when asked if people should be told to work from home in England, as is happening in the devolved nations, she said: “We’ve seen that not everybody has gone back to work and I’d like to think of it more in a general way, which is if we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.

“So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs which, of course, people will now be able to have at a three-month interval from their primary course.”

The prime minister's spokesman appeared to rebuke Dr Harries' advice, saying people should be following government guidance.

Asked if Dr Harries' view that people should try to avoid socialising when they do not need to over the Christmas period was shared by the Prime Minister, the spokesman told reporters: "No. Our advice to the public is as set out at the weekend."

"The public should follow the guidance as set out by the government and indeed the prime minister at the weekend."

But the PM appeared to side with Dr Harries when a reporter asked about her comments.

He said: "I think it's always sensible to be careful. But I think what Jenny is saying there is right, we've been living with a pandemic for a long time, people should continue to do things like make sure they have lots of fresh air, they wash their hands and take normal precautions, I think that's entirely reasonable.

"But we're not going to change the overall guidance. We don't think that's necessary."

Dr Jenny Harries said people can do their bit to slow the spread of Omicron by reducing the amount of socialising they do. Credit: PA

Third jab appointments are not yet available to under-40s, with Boris Johnson to set out details of the scheme in a press conference later today.

By extending the booster scheme beyond the over-40s age group, the number of people eligible has doubled.

The PM said there would need to be "another great surge" in the delivery of the vaccination programme to tackle Omicron, but insisted the NHS was up to the task.

"Is it going to be hard work? Yes, it is. But I know that people can do it," Mr Johnson told broadcasters.

Why are some scientists worried about the new variant? Dr Sarah Jarvis explains

It comes as England enters a new phase of coronavirus restrictions, with laws taking force today mandating that people wear masks in shops and on public transport, while new measures at the border mean any foreign arrivals will be subject to more Covid-19 testing.

All travellers returning to the UK must take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

And anyone found not wearing a mask can once again face a £200 fine for a first time offence, with the amount going up the more people are found to break the rules.

The measures, which came into force at 4am, will be voted on retrospectively in the House of Commons this afternoon and despite some opposition from backbenches, the government is widely expected to win.

Prime Minister Johnson defended England's new coronavirus rules ahead of Tuesday's press conference.

"The measures taking effect today are proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new (Omicron) variant," he said.

"Vaccines and boosters remain our best line of defence, so it is more important than ever that people come forward when eligible to get boosted."

Mr Johnson is resisting pressure to introduce any further measures, with ministers insisting the government has struck the right balance to mitigate the impacts of the new variant while keeping the economy open.

Some people want the PM to bring in his coronavirus Plan B, which would see mask wearing extended to more settings, the use of vaccine certification at certain venues, and the return of work from home advice.

Others, however, want the government to go even further in a bid to ensure there is no emergency lockdown across the Christmas period, as there was last year.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said that now is a "time for caution" as he urged people to do "anything that they can do to reduce the risk" of catching Covid-19.

He told Sky News: "I'm very pleased that people are now being encouraged to wear masks when indoors at the moment, lateral flow tests are a very good way of finding out whether or not you've got the infection, so people should carry on doing those.

"But, at this particular time, it is a time for caution. It's a time for people to be careful, to stay at home when they can to avoid contact with others, just to help us get through this difficult period."

Boris Johnson has reinstated the rule forcing people to wear face masks in shops and on public transport. Credit: Twitter/@BorisJohnson

Asked about Christmas, he added: "Well, certainly, we don't want to cancel a Christmas yet again.

"But in the build-up to Christmas the more we can keep a watchful eye open for this virus, we reduce the risk of getting exposed to it."

Labour has welcomed the latest restrictions but wants the government to go further.

Lisa Nandy, who became Michael Gove's opposite number following a shadow Cabinet reshuffle on Monday, told ITV News that social distancing should have been part of the new set of measures.

And she urged the government to tighten rules at the border to ensure everyone fills in pre-arrival forms and takes all the necessary coronavirus tests, saying there's "still a big gaping hole in our travel defences".

She also said the UK has the "most poorly ventilated buildings in Europe" as she urged the PM to bring in measures to address the issue, which is particularly problematic in schools.

"All of this is about protecting the NHS and making sure we can go ahead with Christmas as planned and we don't go back into another lockdown," she said.

Lisa Nandy on how Labour would address the Omicron variant:

Health Secretary Sajid Javid, after announcing the vaccine news, said it would be a "fine Christmas" this year, so long as vaccinated Britons can keep their coronavirus immunity in spite of the new variant.

There is huge global concern about the new variant, because it has a high number of mutations which indicate it could evade vaccines, or be more transmissible than earlier variants.

Countries around the world reacted swiftly to the emergence of the new variant, with many mirroring the UK by blocking all flights from a number of southern African countries.

It could take weeks to properly ascertain whether vaccines protect against a new variant, and jab producers have warned a new shot could not be developed until 2022.