Tensions between Boris Johnson and his scientific advisers over the UK’s response to the highly contagious omicron variant of coronavirus have burst into the open, as the prime minister dismissed a call from a senior medic for Britons to tone down Christmas celebrations.
Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said that people could help keep the variant at bay by cutting down social contacts over the festive period and “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to”.
But Mr Johnson said the government was “not changing the guidance on how you should be living your life” and urged people not to cancel events like Christmas parties and nativity plays.
The PM announced a target to offer all those aged 18 and over a booster vaccination by the end of January, with at least 400 troops drafted in to assist with what NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said would be “the most complex part of the vaccine rollout so far”.
Jabs will be offered to descending age-groups in five-year bands, and all existing vaccination sites will increase capacity to deal with at least 14 million additional patients over the period. Temporary vaccination centres will be “popping up like Christmas trees”, said Mr Johnson.
Downing Street stressed that the government wanted to take a “proportionate and balanced” approach until clearer scientific evidence emerges of whether omicron is likely to increase serious illness and deaths.
The PM’s official spokesman made clear that new guidance issued over the weekend was formulated with an eye on the economic impact of any new restrictions, telling reporters: “At all stages throughout the pandemic we have sought to strike the correct balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.”
But pubs, restaurants and nightclubs reported that cancellations were already coming in as a result of public concern over omicron, with one industry leader telling The Independent that “poorly-conceived communications” from the government were hitting a sector desperate for a busy festive period to make up for 18 months of shutdowns.
Meanwhile, medical experts backed Dr Harries’ call for restraint over Christmas.
Cinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani told The Independent that the UK needs “urgently” to take all mitigating measures to slow the spread of the new variant, including high-grade masks in indoor and public spaces, better ventilation, support with isolation, caps on large gatherings and working from home for those who can.
“If we don’t take these measures, we will be potentially heading into a preventable lockdown,” said Dr Gurdasani. “If the PM really doesn’t want to ‘cancel Christmas’, he needs to act. All his actions are leading us into a worsening crisis.”
Dr Peter English, a former chair of the BMA public health medicine committee, said he “strongly disagreed” with the PM’s comments.
“I think it’s very likely he will have to backtrack on that,” said Dr English. “Stronger measures now will reduce cases, admissions and deaths overall. Failure to do so risks a need for much harder restrictions in three to four weeks’ time.”
And Irene Petersen, an epidemiologist at University College London, told The Independent: “We should move the Christmas celebrations to a time where we all have a chance enjoy the parties without the fear of getting seriously ill.”
Health secretary Sajid Javid said that new requirements imposed on Tuesday for masks in shops and public transport, and self-isolation for those coming into contact with omicron patients should “buy the time we need” to ramp up protection from vaccines.
By Tuesday evening, 13 omicron infections had been confirmed in England, with cases in the east Midlands, the east of England, London and the northwest. Nine cases in Scotland were all linked to a single private event on 20 November, first minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed.
Labour called on the government to step up preventative measures by mandating pre-departure tests for travellers to the UK in place of the current PCR checks up to two days after arrival.
“Everybody’s really worried about this,” said party leader Sir Keir Starmer. “Everybody’s concerned about saving Christmas. So whatever measures can be taken should be taken.”
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper called for an immediate return to work-from-home guidance “to help save Christmas”.
“Everything we know about this virus suggests it’s better to be cautious and act early,” said Ms Cooper.
“Ministers should listen to their own scientific advice, which found working from home would have the single biggest impact on reducing Covid cases. This could buy us precious extra time while our scientists find out more about the potential impact of this new worrying variant.”
But the chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, Michael Kill, said the sector was already being hit by cancellations of Christmas events, driven by uncertainty over the government’s messaging.
“At the very moment operating costs are at their highest, we are now faced with another poorly-conceived communications strategy from government which has and will severely impact businesses,” he told The Independent.
“We are reliving the moments of March 2020 where the prime minister asked people not to go to pubs, bars, clubs and theatres. It is surreal and extremely frustrating to see healthcare advisers publicly telling people not to socialise, giving unnecessary uncertainty to our customers and workforce.”
Businesses across the country were cancelling or scaling back Christmas parties, including Google, which called off a planned festive drinks reception for technology reporters in London.
But a Christmas market event went ahead in Downing Street, with Mr Johnson welcoming representatives of foreign trade partners to stalls lining the pavements outside No 10.
A YouGov poll found that 68 per cent of voters believe restrictions are likely to be tightened over Christmas – including 23 per cent who thought it was “very likely” – compared to just 19 per cent who said further mitigations were unlikely.
New regulations on face coverings and self-isolation comfortably passed through the House of Commons by 434-23, with 21 Conservative backbenchers rebelling after expressing strong reservations about the return of restrictions.
Influential backbencher Steve Baker warned the government was “choosing the downward path towards hell”, while veteran Sir Christopher Chope denounced the measures as “oppressive, authoritarian and dictatorial”
Former health minister Steve Brine said: “There’s nothing in these regulations that says you’ve got to cancel Christmas parties – unless Dr Harries, of course, is in charge. But there’s everything in the language and the narrative that’s coming out of government right now that is causing Christmas parties to be cancelled.”
And the head of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, Mark Harper, raised concerns that while mask requirements will be reviewed after three weeks, the legislation allows new rules on self-isolation to remain in place until March.
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