Covid: Health officials urge people to cancel Christmas parties ahead of Omicron hospital pressures

A Welsh health board has urged people to cancel their Christmas parties as pressure mounts on hospitals in light of the Omicron Covid variant.

Cardiff and Vale University Health Board issued a statement saying "we need to take urgent steps to protect ourselves, our colleagues, and our patients."

It read: "We strongly discourage attending Christmas parties. Please continue to stay safe and follow national guidance."

This comes as scientists advising the government warned that tougher restrictions may be needed to prevent Omicron causing an increase in Covid related deaths.

The variant is expected to be the dominant strain in the UK by mid-December and health officials have advised a  booster dose sees the risk of symptomatic infection with the variant “significantly reduced."

The Welsh Government will review its coronavirus guidance on a weekly basis over winter in response to the threat from the Omicron variant, shifting away from the current three-week cycle.

First Minister Mark Drakeford warned the public to prepare for the number of Omicron cases to rise "quickly and steeply" over the coming weeks.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, he said: "We don't yet know how serious this form of the illness will be, but the sheer speed at which the variant moves means it has the potential to infect large numbers of people."

He continued: "That would then translate to a large number of hospital admissions over the next month just at the time the NHS is already under severe and intense pressure."

So far, one million people in Wales have had their booster jab, and the Welsh Government are to offer a third dose to everyone over 18 by the end of January.

The Welsh Government said on Thursday evening that despite Omicron, the alert level remains at 0.

Mr Drakeford said the Cabinet was trying to strike a "very challenging balance" to try and avoid limiting the public's freedom and protecting against the virus, and so was shifting to weekly Covid-19 reviews.

"That means all the things I am announcing today will be in place for the next week and then we will review the situation again," he said.

Mr Drakeford refused to be drawn on claims first reported on the Guido Fawkes political blog he had discussed the possibility of imposing a lockdown between Christmas and New Year in a meeting.

He described the result as "a gross violation" of the rules under which the meeting was conducted, adding: "Whoever it was carried out that gross violation, (it) was simply to cause a distraction from the many, many difficulties the UK Government has had this week."

But he did agree that sports club had been told to plan for new restrictions in January.

Mr Drakeford said planning was "simple common sense".

"Planning for what might happen does not mean that it will happen - it simply means that while you have the chance to do so you should be thinking and preparing," he said.

The First Minister denied he was waiting for the Senedd to break up for Christmas before introducing new measures in a bid to avoid scrutiny.

"The Senedd could be recalled if there were to big decisions necessary," he said.

"If decisions need to be made and the Senedd needs to scrutinise them, I am sure a way will be found to make sure that can happen."

Asked what support was available for hospitality businesses set to lose out as people cancel Christmas plans, he said the Welsh Government was looking at the funds it could bring together.

But he warned: "If that variant were to sweep across the whole of the UK at a speed and with an intensity that some of the models are now suggesting, then the economic impact could only be absorbed with action from the treasury at the UK level.

"No devolved Government by itself could manage to provide the level of support that would be necessary in those circumstances."

Mr Drakeford added: "I have made that point to the UK Government and will have the opportunity to do so again this afternoon - the Treasury has to be around the table as we plan ahead for what might be coming our way."

The First Minister said it was not for the Government to "micromanage" and tell people whether or not to go ahead with Christmas parties.

"I will just repeat what I have said already - if people are intending to go out to any sort of gathering then they need to do so in a conscious way," Mr Drakeford said.

He urged the public to employ a "repertoire of things we know builds up our defences and can help to keep us safe", including vaccination, testing and mask-wearing.