Health chief and Downing St clash over call to limit socialising

UK Health Security Agency chief Dr Jenny Harries suggested ‘not socialising when we don’t particularly need to’ in the run-up to Christmas.

David Hughes
Tuesday 30 November 2021 13:35
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited a primary care centre in north London (PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited a primary care centre in north London (PA)

Downing Street has clashed with the head of the UK’s Health Security Agency after she urged people not to socialise if they do not need to in the run-up to Christmas.

Dr Jenny Harries said people could do their bit to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant by reducing the number of social contacts they have as she urged people to have their booster jabs.

Some 14 cases of the variant have so far been identified across the UK, though Dr Harries told ministers to expect this number to rise in the coming days.

During a round of broadcast interviews, Dr Harries said: “If we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.”

But Boris Johnson said there was no need to “change the overall guidance about how people should be living their lives”.

Amid concerns about the impact on the hospitality sector, No 10 insisted there was “no change in our guidance” about socialising.

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 Mr Johnson, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “No. Our advice to the public is as set out at the weekend.

“We have put advice out on face coverings and on inward travellers and those who are identified as having the Omicron variant of coronavirus. Beyond that we haven’t set out any further guidance to the public.”

Asked if people should follow what he was saying or what Dr Harries was saying, the spokesman said: “The public should follow the guidance as set out by the Government and indeed the Prime Minister at the weekend.”

The wearing of face masks has become mandatory on public transport in England again (Peter Byrne/PA)

The spokesman said the Prime Minister had full confidence in Dr Harries – who briefed the Cabinet on Tuesday morning – but stressed that she was an adviser rather than a minister and was not speaking for the Government.

Mr Johnson was asked directly whether he agreed with Dr Harries as he visited a GP surgery in north London.

The Prime Minister 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. We don’t see anything to suggest that we need to go, for instance, to Plan B.

“But what we do need to do is take particular precautions against Omicron until we’ve worked out exactly what kind of a threat it may present.”

Mr Johnson, who will receive his booster jab later this week, will set out more details of the campaign to deliver extra doses at a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

England’s new measures, including the mandatory use of face coverings in shops and on public transport, came into effect at 4am, introduced in response to the Omicron variant.

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.

(PA Graphics)

“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.”

Asked whether people should be told to work from home in England, as is happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, 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.”

In October, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said that Plan B measures – including guidance on working from home – 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.

But Downing Street has so far refused to reinstate guidance to work from home, in part because of the wider impact on the economy.

Elsewhere, the health minister, Gillian Keegan, told Sky News the Government is “very much hoping that we can keep Christmas on track”.

She told Sky News the position this year was much different due to the vaccine rollout.

In the US, Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla said during an interview that the firm has already started making a vaccine against the Omicron variant.

He told the US business news channel CNBC: “Within 95 days, basically we will have a new vaccine.”

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