PM: DON’T CANCEL YOUR CHRISTMAS
Pubs and restaurants reel from Omicron warnings ++ UK masks up AGAIN ++ But Army set to roll out jabs and Boris calms nerves
families were last night urged not to cancel their Christmas plans because of the Omicron variant.
Rejecting alarmist rhetoric about the threat from the new strain, Boris Johnson said ‘keep living your life’.
And he directly contradicted public health chief Jenny Harries, who had advised against ‘unnecessary socialising’ in the run-up to Christmas.
The Prime Minister yesterday unveiled plans for a major acceleration in the rollout of coronavirus third doses.
Calling in the Army and offering GPs £15 a jab, he predicted the booster drive would hold Omicron at bay without the need for a return to sweeping virus restrictions. Pubs and restaurants said fears about the new variant had already sparked cancellations – despite the UK having only a handful of cases.
Schools were also reported to have cancelled nativity plays and Christmas fairs. Speaking at a No 10 press conference, Mr Johnson urged organisers to think again: ‘We don’t want people to cancel such events and we think that, overwhelmingly, the best thing for kids is to be at school, as I have said many times throughout this pandemic.’
He insisted that the Government would take a ‘balanced and proportionate’ approach to Omicron, with controls focused on ‘measures at the border’ to slow the arrival of cases. And he said the NHS would ‘throw everything’ at the booster rollout because it was ‘our single best defence against Omicron’.
However, the Prime Minister was hit by Conservative rebellions over the reintroduction yesterday of rules on mask wearing and quarantine.
One former minister claimed the Government was ‘taking the path to hell’.
Thirty-two backbenchers rebelled against regulations that will force all contacts of suspected Omicron cases to self-isolate for ten days, even if fully jabbed. In other developments:
■ Ministers confirmed the target of offering booster jabs to all adults by the start of February;
■ Mr Johnson called in 400 troops to help deliver the rollout, with new sites
for vaccinations scheduled to be opened around the country;
■ It emerged that GPs and pharmacists will be offered payments of £15 a jab to increase capacity, with an extra £5 for doses delivered on Sundays;
■ But the British Medical Association said GPs did not have time to deliver more boosters and would need ‘substantial support’ from the Government;
■ Chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned the Cabinet it might take time to assess the potential impact of Omicron;
■ Health Secretary Sajid Javid revealed that 22 cases of the new variant have been discovered in the UK and warned it was likely it was spreading;
■ Another 39,716 virus cases were reported yesterday with 159 deaths;
■ NHS chief Amanda Pritchard urged the volunteer ‘jabs army’ to come forward again and help out this winter;
■ A scientist behind the Pfizer jab said people should not ‘freak out’ at the emergence of Omicron because existing vaccines were likely to work;
The call yesterday morning from Dr Harries for a limit on social contact sparked alarm in No 10 and anger among business leaders. The former deputy chief medical officer, who now heads the UK Health Security Agency, went well beyond the Government’s limited response to the emergence of Omicron.
She suggested that restrictions might have to remain in place longer, or be tightened, if people continued with the Christmas party season as normal. She added: ‘In winter, and particularly around Christmas, we tend to socialise more, so I think all of those behaviours will need to be taken into account.’
Dr Harries also suggested that employees should consider working from home to limit contacts.
She told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘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.’
Asked if Mr Johnson shared her view, a No 10 spokesman said: ‘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.’
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said the uncertainty caused by mixed messages was damaging business.
‘It is surreal and extremely frustrating to see healthcare advisers publicly telling people not to socialise, giving unnecessary uncertainty to our customers and workforce,’ he added. ‘Christmas bookings and advance ticket sales have already been hit following the announcement of the new Omicron variant.’
Former minister Steve Baker condemned the intervention from Dr Harries, saying: ‘Loneliness shortens lives ... and yet we find an official going beyond government policy to say that we should not have unnecessary socialising.’
Dr Harries was backed by Welsh Labour health minister Eluned Morgan, who said: ‘I would urge people to act with caution over the Christmas period. And to take seriously the situation, and the threat, of mixing with other people indoors during this time.’
Legislation requiring that close contacts of Omicron cases will have to isolate at home for ten days is set to remain in place until the end of March.
Travel quarantine restrictions are also set to stay in place for months unless the new strain quickly proves little threat.
A source said Professor Whitty felt that South Africa’s young, largely vaccinated population was very different to the UK’s, limiting the lessons that can be learned from the country where the new variant was identified.
‘Ticket sales have already been hit’