Omicron: Don’t Socialise Before Christmas Unless Necessary, Says UK Health Chief

Workers install a festive Christmas-themed window display in a Harvey Nichols store in central Manchester, north west England on November 4, 2020, as the country prepares for a second Covid-19 lockdown in an effort to combat soaring infections. - England heads into a second national lockdown on November 5. (Photo …
OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

The prime minister’s office has clashed with the UK’s Health Security Agency chief over her recommendations for people to socialise less before Christmas — going beyond the official guidance — with a Number 10 spokesman stating “she is not a government minister”.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Johnson announced the reintroduction of the mask mandate in shops and public transport with other traveller restrictions over concerns of the new Omicron variant of the Chinese coronavirus, saying that the measures would be reviewed in three weeks’ time, not long before Christmas.

The UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) Chief Executive Dr Jenny Harries spoke to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday in relation to possibly lifting the measures just before the holy period, saying: “A critical point, here, is 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.

“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.”

She continued further on working from home and interacting with others in general, recommending: “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.”

While on a trip in North London, Boris Johnson was asked whether he agreed with the UKHSA chief that Britons should curb their socialising, responding: “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,” Prime Minister Johnson added.

Downing Street was rather more firm in its effort to distance itself from the advice, clarifying there is “no change in our guidance”, and implying that Harries had no authority to make any national recommendations to the public, given she is not an elected public servant.

A Number 10 spokesman told The Telegraph: “It’s not our advice to the public currently. You’ll know the measures we set out at the weekend.

“The UK HSA is an arms-length body of Government, and Jenny Harries provides advice to the Government, she is not a Government minister. The public should follow the guidance as set out by the Government and indeed the Prime Minister at the weekend.”

One Conservative MP was more blunt, telling the newspaper: “Who put her in charge of who people can meet?”

Health Minister Gillian Keegan was insistent earlier in the day while speaking to Sky News that “of course Christmas is on track”.

Mandatory masks in retail and public transport, but not in hospitality, came into effect on Tuesday, with London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan saying he “wholeheartedly welcomes” the reintroduction of the mask mandate, meaning that he can now coordinate the fining of travellers not wearing face-coverings on Transport for London (TfL) services. Masking up remained a condition of carriage on TfL public transport even after nationwide restrictions were lifted in July, but Mayor Khan was powerless to fine recalcitrant travellers as it was no longer the law.

Meanwhile, the chief of British budget supermarket Iceland has said it will not be asking staff to enforce mask-wearing in their stores. Richard Walker told the Today programme that “what I won’t be doing is asking my store colleagues to police those who refuse to adhere to the rules.

“They’re already working under significant pressure, especially as we hit the busiest trading month of the year.”

.

Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.