Boris Johnson has rejected the idea that people should cancel Christmas parties and other festive events, after one of the UK’s most senior health officials said people should cut down on socialising.
The prime minister said there was no need to strengthen the guidance on social contact, despite the cautionary message from the head of the UK Health Security Agency, Jenny Harries.
After visiting a vaccination centre, Johnson said there needed to be a “surge” in people getting booster shots and that the army would be brought in to provide logistical support, but there would be no further change in advice “about how people should be living their lives”.
Watch: We need to delay the seeding of Omicron in this country, says PM
Harries had earlier urged people to reduce their social contact, even if only by a little, as fears grow that existing vaccines will prove less effective against the Omicron variant.
“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,” the former deputy chief medical officer for England told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs.”
Tory MPs were outraged by Harries’s suggestion, and the lockdown-sceptic backbenchers Desmond Swayne, Mark Harper and Steve Baker challenged it in the House of Commons. Baker said it “appears now that employed civil servants are no longer bound to policy” and that it was a “recipe for chaos”.
Pressed about whether people should cancel their Christmas parties, No 10 said Harries “gives advice to the government, she is not the government”.
Senior politicians are pressing ahead with Christmas drinks parties, and Johnson will continue to attend and hold receptions.
His official spokesman also made it clear that the government had no intention of moving to its “plan B” of working from home and introducing vaccine passports unless hospitals show signs of becoming overwhelmed.
Harries, however, appeared to suggest a lower bar for plan B measures based on a rising number of cases rather than hospital admissions.
She said advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had “shown that, if we have significant surges in Covid cases, then actually working from home is one of the key ones to implement”.
She said the number of Omicron cases identified in England remained low. “So it’s a very early stage for this, I think, but certainly, if we see surges, then working from home will be a good thing to do.”
Three more cases of the Omicron variant were identified in Scotland on Tuesday, taking the UK’s total to 14.
Harries spoke after the chief executive of the drugmaker Moderna said existing vaccines were unlikely to be as effective against Omicron as they had been against the Delta variant.
Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times: “I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like ‘this is not going to be good’.”
Bancel had earlier said on CNBC that there should be greater clarity on the efficacy of vaccines against Omicron in about two weeks’ time, and that it could take months to begin shipping a vaccine that would work against it.
Asked about the prospect of Christmas being cancelled, the Sage member Prof Paul Moss told Sky News: “I don’t think we need to worry too much about that at this stage … the measures that we got in place have a good chance of gaining some control here.”
The Labour MP Lisa Nandy said it was up to the government to save Christmas. She told Sky News: “The vast majority of people are doing what is asked of them – wearing masks, getting the booster jab, social distancing … People are trying their best, but there are some big holes in the government’s plans, particularly around travel.”
Watch: What do we know about the Omicron variant?