A minister has urged people to “keep calm and carry on” with their festive plans. Oliver Dowden, the Conservatives’ co-chairman, insisted this morning that the Tories were not telling people to cancel Christmas parties.
However, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccinations contradicted him, saying that people should avoid going to parties.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, told Times Radio that people should be encouraged to work from home, wear masks and take regular lateral flow tests to counter the threat of Omicron. He advised the public not to attend parties.
Meanwhile, government departments cancelled their office parties yesterday despite the prime minister urging them to go ahead. The education department suspended plans for its annual talent show, which was due to happen in person and be streamed for staff working from home.
Finn said: “Personally, I’m encouraging my team to pass on Christmas parties this year because we want to keep the workplace safe. I’ve certainly been wearing masks in public places and working from home and doing all of those things all the way through since the summer. So that would be my advice.
“This problem is still with us and if we all do the necessary to try and reduce viral spread, then we’ll all be in a better place next year.”
Dowden dismissed concerns from scientists and said that people did not need to change plans because of the Omicron variant. “I would say to people keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans,” he said.
The education department has suspended plans for its annual talent show, which was due to happen in person and streamed for staff working from home. The business department decided not to hold a staff Christmas party.
Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid had all insisted that big Christmas celebrations should go ahead, despite the danger from the Omicron variant. “We don’t want people to feel that they need to start cancelling things,” the prime minister said yesterday. “You talk about kids in nativity plays and that kind of thing — I don’t think there’s any need to stop that at all.
“We’re taking a balanced and proportionate approach to the risk, but I want and I believe that Christmas this year will be considerably better than Christmas last year.”
Sunak, the chancellor, said: “People don’t need to cancel Christmas parties but they should follow the guidance.”
Javid, the health secretary, made the same point, saying: “Keep having your Christmas parties and your get-togethers and enjoy yourself, but please be cautious and follow the guidance.” The health department had not planned a big Christmas party, he added, but he would take some of his staff for dinner.
The government was accused of creating confusion when one minister said it was not sensible to host hundreds of people and another warned against “snogging under the mistletoe”.
George Freeman, a business minister, said that companies should reconsider parties for hundreds of staff. “The department of business won’t be having a big Christmas party this year. Nobody would expect us to,” he told Today on BBC Radio 4. “We’ll get together on Zoom and toast each other.”
Johnson’s spokesman said that there was no need to scale back Christmas parties. “There is nothing in the rules to prevent anyone from having Christmas parties,” he said. “The prime minister has been very clear on this. On Christmas parties, we don’t want people to cancel such events. There is no government guidance to that end.”
No 10 also insisted that people were free to kiss whomever they liked after Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, warned against “snogging under the mistletoe”, and rejected claims that ministers had confused the public, saying that the official guidance was “easily available”.
Javid said earlier this week that it was “absolutely fine” for people to “go ahead with whatever we’ve planned for Christmas” including parties with hundreds of people, but encouraged them to take a lateral flow test first. He told Times Radio: “If I was going to a party with 300 or 400 people for Christmas, I would take a test before I go. I think it’s just a sensible precaution.”
Staff at University College London, NHS trusts, the toy company Bandai and Age UK used social media this week to report that staff parties had been cancelled.
Patrick Dardis, head of the pub group Young’s, which runs more than 270 sites across the UK, said that some Christmas bookings had been cancelled. “I think the messaging started as a complete overreaction and, unsurprisingly, it has concerned some people,” he said.
UK Hospitality, the British Institute of Innkeeping and the British Beer and Pub Association urged people not to cancel bookings. “The full range of hospitality venues across the UK would usually be experiencing their annual bookings bonanza at this time of year, but it hadn’t materialised even before Omicron,” they said.