Omicron: Confusion as government tells public to ignore top UK health official’s Christmas COVID guidance

Chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency Dr Jenny Harries, during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Tuesday October 19, 2021.
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, says people should not socialise unnecessarily before Christmas. (PA)

The government has flatly contradicted COVID guidance from one of its most senior health officials that people should not socialise before Christmas unless it is necessary,

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said unnecessary gatherings in the festive period should not go ahead during an interview with the BBC on Tuesday morning.

Dr Harries said that people can do their bit to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the weeks ahead by reducing their social contacts.

She warned that if Omicron is “more highly transmissible”, it could have a “significant impact on our hospitals”.

She added: “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.

Read more: 5 things we have learned about COVID and the Omicron variant

“Being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and, particularly, going and getting those booster jobs which, of course, people will now be able to have at a three-month interval from their primary course.

“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.”

Watch: Dr Jenny Harries hopes new COVID measures prevents further restrictions

Asked if Dr Harries’ view was shared by Boris Johnson, the PM's spokesman told reporters: “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. Beyond that we haven’t set out any further guidance to the public.”

Asked about Dr Harries' comments later, Boris Johnson confused the issue even further, initially saying that "I think what Jenny is saying there is right", before categorically stating the guidance will remain the same.

"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," he said.

Omicron continues to spread

The development comes as the number of cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus continues to grow and experts grapple with the most proportionate responses.

So far, 14 cases of the variant, first identified in South Africa, have been detected in the UK with many warning that the variant could be more transmissible and may likely spread further and faster in the coming weeks.

Three new cases of the Omicron variant were identified in Scotland on Tuesday, bringing the total there to nine and the number in the UK to 14.

Read: 8 COVID hotspots as UK urges boosters for all to battle Omicron

Five cases have so far been identified in England, with two in London revealed on Monday night.

On Tuesday, face masks in shops and on public transport became mandatory once again in England, bringing it closer in line with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Boris Johnson is expected to set out plans later today to offer booster jabs to every adult in the UK.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended that the gap between second jabs and boosters should be reduced from six to three months.

JCVI member Professor Adam Finn appeared to echo the tone of Dr Harries' comments, urging people to stay at home if they can.

“People should recognise that this virus has not gone away, and anything that they can do to reduce the risk to themselves, their families, and the people they’re in contact with makes good sense,” he told Sky News. “It is a time for caution. It’s a time for people to be careful, to stay at home when they can to avoid contact with others.

“We don’t want to cancel a Christmas yet again. But in the build-up to Christmas the more we can keep a watchful eye open for this virus we reduce the risk of getting exposed to it.”

On Monday, health secretary Sajid Javid said if the UK can keep the Omicron variant at bay, then people “can look forward to a fine Christmas”.

This was echoed on Tuesday by junior health minister Gillian Keegan, who said the chances of having to isolate over Christmas were “pretty low”.

Passengers wait for trains at Ashford Railway Station in Kent, as mask wearing on public transport becomes mandatory to contain the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant. Picture date: Tuesday November 30, 2021.
Passengers wait for trains at Ashford Railway Station in Kent, as mask wearing on public transport became mandatory to contain the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant. (PA)

Ahead of his press conference on Tuesday, Johnson defended England’s new coronavirus rules, despite calls for face coverings to be compulsory in pubs and restaurants.

As well as face masks being made mandatory on public transport and in shops, people arriving in the UK from abroad must take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

“The measures taking effect today are proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new variant,” said Johnson.

Watch: Continue with your Christmas plans, says junior health minister