With people rushing to get their booster jabs, can GPs cope with the increased demand? ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said it would be "very sensible indeed" for people to check their Covid status with a quick-result lateral flow test before attending festive bashes, especially if there will be a lot of people attending.
Despite concerns that vaccines may provide less protection against the new variant, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people to continue planning their Christmas gatherings.
Asked about nativity plays and Christmas parties at Tuesday evening's Downing Street press conference, the prime minister said "we don't want people to cancel such events".
Instead, the government is hoping by extending the booster jab programme to all adults over 18, as well as bolstering its capacity with more vaccine centres and the help of at least 400 soldiers, that immunity in the UK can be increased to such a level that further restrictions are not needed.
Said Javid: It would be a good idea to test before attending parties
The aim is to have offered every eligible adult a booster jab by the end of January - there are at least 32 confirmed cases in the UK so far but that number is expected to grow significantly.
"Since we learned about this new variant our strategy has been to buy time," Mr Javid told ITV News, "buy time to assess it but also to build up our defences.
"Our vaccines still remain our first line of defence. its possible that they might be less effective against this new variant but its also very likely that they will remain effective against serious disease."
Time was bought, the government says, through the implementation of emergency Covid measures, which include a new face mask mandate for shops and public transport, along with stricter testing requirements for foreign arrivals.
As the NHS gears up "another great vaccination effort," as Boris Johnson described it, scientists at Porton Down are assessing the Omicron variant to see how transmissible it is, and what impact vaccines have against it.
Ministers have refused to rule out bringing in new measures if scientists find the variant to be more dangerous, but Mr Javid said "we don't need anymore restrictions, certainly not at this point".
Sajid Javid: We don't need any new restrictions at the moment
As they encouraged Britons to take up offers of a booster jab, Mr Javid told Tuesday's press conference that the vaccine programme would be put on "steroids" and Mr Johnson said new jab centres would be "popping up like Christmas trees".
But on Wednesday morning, the health secretary accepted the government was asking a lot of the NHS, which is already struggling with a record length waiting list.
Despite huge pressure on the heath service, Mr Javid said he is "confident" the end of January target will be achieved.
"We're asking a lot of the NHS," he said, "but I think the NHS itself can see why the vaccine mission has become more and more important and I believe that the fantastic people that work in the NHS will be able to deliver on this."
Policy director at the NHS Confederation, Layla McCay, told ITV News that some non-urgent care may need to "take a back seat" while health workers prioritise the booster scheme.
"At the end of the day piling on more and more and more work onto the same people is going to lead to some compromises potentially having to be made," she said.
The NHS is administering around 350,000 booster jabs a day, according to official figures, but that figure will need to increase dramatically if the government wants to use third doses to drive up immunity in eligible people.
It has been estimated that another 30 million people will need to have been offered a vaccine within the next two months for the target to be met.
Downing Street was asked whether it was now Government policy that party-goers should take a lateral flow test before attending events.
The PM's official spokesman said: "I think he was very clear about what he was saying.
"He was setting out that we do have a significant testing capacity, and if people wanted further reassurance they could use that."
Javid: 'We're asking a lot but the NHS can do it...'
It comes as Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said some NHS organisations had asked staff "not to mix in big groups" in the run-up to Christmas owing to fears off staff absences.
She told Sky News this year was "very different" to last year when "it was absolutely clear that nobody was going to a Christmas party".
She added: "This year, we are in in a slightly different place - people will be taking their own decisions.
"We know that many NHS trusts, for example, are asking their staff not to mix in big groups in the run-up to Christmas because of the potential threat to their health and what they will be available to do.
"So, they are setting one example there. I think, at the moment, without that advice for government, I think it's for individuals and individual organisations to think about what they will be doing in the run-up to Christmas. But it's a really challenging and difficult one.
"The thing we can encourage everyone to do is to go out and get their booster when it's made available to them and to book in for that because that's one of the best defences that we've got alongside wearing masks, washing your hands and also making sure you're in ventilated rooms."
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