Politics latest news: No 10 slaps down Dr Jenny Harries over suggestion Britons should curb unnecessary socialising

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  • Jenny Harries
    English physician
  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
Dr Jenny Harries' comments have sparked concern among backbenchers - PA
Dr Jenny Harries' comments have sparked concern among backbenchers - PA

A senior health official has been rebuked by the Prime Minister after suggesting people should avoid unnecessary socialising to curb the spread of the omicron variant.

Boris Johnson insisted “we’re not going to change the overall guidance, we don't think that's necessary”, when he was asked about comments by Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, who had urged people to avoid socialising “unless you need to” in the run up to Christmas.

Downing Street also heavily distanced itself from her remarks, as the PM’s official spokesman stressed: “It's not our advice to the public currently. You'll know the measures we set out at the weekend.

“The UK Health Security Agency 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.”

This included new rules mandating face masks in shops and on public transport, and PCR tests for inward travel to Britain.

The No 10 spokesman also confirmed that Dr Harries did not raise her sentiments about socialising when she briefed Cabinet on Tuesday morning.

In the Commons, vaccines minister Maggie Throup added: “We have set out proportionate and balanced measures which do not include limiting socialising. It is the Government that sets policy and guidance, which is what the public should follow.”

​​Follow the latest updates below.

04:29 PM

No need to minimise socialising, says Boris Johnson as he distances himself from Harries

Boris Johnson sought to distance himself from comments by Dr Jenny Harries that people should minimise their socialising before Christmas.

Pressed on whether the public should follow Dr Harries's advice, the Prime Minister replied: "The answer is no, the guidance remains the same, we're trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach.

"We're really dealing with two variants at the same time - we've got the measures in place to fight delta, and we're bringing in some tougher measures to stop the rapid seeding of omicron in this country."

Asked why face coverings are not mandatory in cinemas and hospitality settings, Mr Johnson repeated that the Government was trying to take a "balanced and proportionate" approach.

04:24 PM

Breaking: MPs vote through self-isolation rules

MPs have approved regulations that force all close contacts of people with the omicron variant to self-isolate by 431 votes to 36.

04:18 PM

'No doubt' the NHS will rise to the challenge, says Health Secretary

There is "no doubt" the NHS will rise to the challenge of the expanded booster campaign, Sajid Javid told reporters.

"What we're seeing has brought back memories of this last winter. But we have one huge advantage that we didn't have back then - our vaccination programme, which has already done so much to keep this virus at bay.

"But those defences will only keep us safe if we use them. We all have a role to play if we want to give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones."

Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England, added that more than 13 million adults would be newly eligible for vaccines that will be delivered "at breakneck speed".

The JCVI has also recommended fourth jabs for those who are immunocompromised.

04:13 PM

Sajid Javid: Boosters play a huge part in our fight against the virus

Sajid Javid thanked NHS volunteers as he revealed that the UK has hit the milestone of 18 million booster jabs.

"Thanks to you we've made so much progress over a year that we have now weakened the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths," the Health Secretary said.

"Boosters in particular play a very huge part. The booster dose provides a much higher antibody response than the primary course, so it's more important than ever that people step up and get protected."

Mr Javid noted warnings by the World Health Organisation yesterday that the new variant posed a serious risk, before conceding: "There's a lot we don't know, of course".

"Our strategy is to buy the time we need to assess this new variant, while doing everything we can to slow the spread of the virus and strengthen our defences."

04:11 PM

Boris Johnson press conference: 'Let's not give this virus a second chance'

"I know the frustration that we all feel with this omicron variant, the sense of exhaustion that we could be going through all over again," Boris Johnson told this afternoon's briefing.

"But today that's the wrong thing to feel because our position is and always will be immeasurably better than it was a year ago.

"What we're doing is taking some precautionary, proportionate measures while our scientists crack the omicron code and while we get the added protection of those boosters into those who need them most."

He confirmed he would be getting his booster on Thursday, and urged Britons to "get your booster and ask your friends and family to do the same".

"We've done it before, we're going to do it again - let's not give this virus a second chance."

04:08 PM

Boosters for all by January, pledges Prime Minister

Boris Johnson confirmed that the Government will offer a booster to everyone eligible by the end of January.

As with the initial vaccine roll-out, inoculations will be rolled out by descending age order in five-year bands in order to protect the most vulnerable.

"We're going to be throwing everything at it to make sure everyone eligible is offered that booster," he told a Downing Street press conference.

Boris Johnson is speaking from Downing Street about the newly-expanded booster campaign
Boris Johnson is speaking from Downing Street about the newly-expanded booster campaign

There will be more than 1,500 community pharmacy sites in England, with sites increasing their capacity alongside extra hospital hubs.

"There'll be temporary vaccination sites popping up like Christmas trees," Mr Johnson said, as he revealed that 400 military personnel will be drafted in.

04:06 PM

Breaking: House of Commons approves new Covid mask rules

The House of Commons has just approved the new Covid regulations on mask-wearing on shops and in public transport by 434 votes to 23.

It suggests strong support for the measures from the Labour MPs who voted as well as among the majority of the Conservatives, whose MPs rebelled in less significant numbers than during many recent votes.

03:58 PM

Breaking: Eight new cases of omicron variant confirmed

Eight further cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed in England, the UK Health Security Agency has said.

This brings the total in England to 13.

03:53 PM

Vaccines minister: 'It is the Government that sets policy and guidance'

MPs are now voting on the measures that came into law today on self-isolation for close contacts of omicron cases and the return of mask mandates in shops and on public transport.

Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, said in her closing remarks: "The virus is fighting back and we must respond. To those who say the regulations we have debated here are an imposition on our liberties, I agree, but they’re a necessary imposition to slow the spread of the new variant and allow science to catch up.

“However, there is a balance to be struck. Too many restrictions have a crippling effect on social and economic life as well as adding to the burden of mental illness. So for those who say the regulations are not enough, I say they will buy us time to understand this new variant better.”

Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, was the only member of the Cabinet in the House this afternoon as MPs debated new restrictions
Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, was the only member of the Cabinet in the House this afternoon as MPs debated new restrictions

The Government will continue to “closely monitor” all new data on omicron, Ms Throup added, and reiterated restrictions would “not be in place any longer than necessary” but it was “right to take necessary and proportionate measures”.

On Ms Harries's comments, Ms Throup said: "We have set out proportionate and balanced measures which do not include limiting socialising. It is the Government that sets policy and guidance, which is what the public should follow."

03:47 PM

Yvette Cooper makes first move as shadow home secretary

Yvette Cooper has made her first intervention as shadow home secretary - writing to Priti Patel and Sajid Javid to demand the Government reintroduce pre-departure Covid tests for anyone travelling to the UK.

In the letter to ministers the Labour frontbencher - who has repeatedly challenged the Home Secretary over tougher border controls throughout the pandemic - noted that people could get onto "crowded planes, stand in crowded departure halls, get on crowded tubes, buses and trains home to rejoin family or housemates without taking a test at any point along the way - not even a lateral flow test at the airport before they get on a plane".

She added: "This basic testing is an urgent requirement."

03:40 PM

Omicron isolation could be cut with different test, suggests Tory MP

A senior Tory has said there is a solution to the "clumsy" way of identifying 'suspected' omicron cases, saying the use of Thermo Fisher PCR test would "expedite" diagnosis.

This would shorten the length of time of isolation, which "might make it slightly more palatable to those of us who have concerns", Dr Andrew Murrison said.

The MP reiterated calls for the Commons to remain in session "well past the time at which we normally rise" in order to review the regulations in three weeks.

"These thing aren't trivial - they are of vital importance," he adds. Businesses are "now coming to the point where they are thinking this could be the new normal" and will question whether to invest if restrictions are reimposed.

He also asked if the vaccines minister had a "cunning plan" for increasing availability of booster jabs.

03:19 PM

Vote on regulations is 'fundamental choice' between heaven and hell

A former minister has called on the Government to "set out what broad kind of society we are trying to create - where are we going as a society and a civilisation".

Steve Baker says he is "not here to govern idiots", saying he has faith in the British public to make their own decisions about how to behave in light of the new variant.

But the return of new measures is a "fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell."

He adds: "It is the most extraordinary set of choices that is being taken because of the overwhelming narrow focus on the one issue of coronavirus."

03:13 PM

Former whip challenges minister over working from home contingency plans

Mark Harper has confirmed he will oppose the new Covid regulations because "nothing I have seen gives me any confidence this has been thought through".

The former chief whip and chairman of the Covid Recovery Group says: "There has been a diminution in trust between backbenchers and ministers have to work hard to rebuild that trust."

He asks the vaccines minister to clarify how they plan to determine which cases are omicron, and if the app is being changed "to deal with this new regulatory approach".

He cites a report that because people are no longer having to check into hospitality venues, the Test and Trace app is no longer considered effective, and asks Maggie Throup to confirm if it is official policy to just identify cases arriving from outside the UK.

Mr Harper also asks if ministers are working on contingency plans to require masks in more indoor settings, with a possible work-from-home guidance over Christmas, as has been reported today.

03:01 PM

Tory MP accuses PM of running 'propaganda campaign' to stop socialising

Boris Johnson has introduced a "scaremongering propaganda campaign" to restrict social interaction in the UK, a Conservative former minister has warned.

Sir Christopher Chope told the Commons: "I cannot support these oppressive, authoritarian and dictatorial regulations. They're neither necessary nor desirable, they will have an adverse effect on lives, livelihoods and the mental health of our constituents."

The MP for Christchurch said the regulations were part of a campaign that was "really designed to try to stop or restrict social interaction between social animals who happen to be living in the United Kingdom".

He added: "They're designed to suppress freedom of the individual and suppress social contact, and they're doing that through unreasonable fear-mongering."

02:47 PM

Labour accused of double standards on mask-wearing

Labour has been accused of double standards over the opposition party's support for wearing masks in Parliament.

Conservative MP Gary Sambrook told the Commons: "Last night, I walked past the shadow cabinet room and there was quite a party going on inside, and I popped my head around the corner and there was lots of drinking and shuffling going on.

"That's fair enough, that's the rules at the moment, knock yourselves out, it's nearly Christmas.

"But why is it OK to come into the chamber and tell us all one thing in front of the cameras and do something completely different behind closed doors?"

Shadow health minister Alex Norris replied: "If the honourable member is seeking to redress grievances relative to what parties he has and hasn't been invited to with the Labour Party, I'm afraid I'm simply the wrong person to address those concerns to."

02:44 PM

Sir Geoffrey Cox 'not being investigated' over second job claims

Sir Geoffrey Cox had come under fire for having apparently used his parliamentary office to conduct business for his second job - PA
Sir Geoffrey Cox had come under fire for having apparently used his parliamentary office to conduct business for his second job - PA

Sir Geoffrey Cox has said he will not be investigated over accusations he used his parliamentary office to carry out work for his second job.

The Conservative MP came under fire last month, after he was pictured taking part in a virtual meeting, representing the British Virgin Islands government, from what appeared to be his Commons office.

MPs are prohibited from using any taxpayer-funded resources for "personal or financial benefit", with Labour reporting it to the Standards Commissioner as a result.

But the former attorney general told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme that Kathryn Stone had declined to open an investigation.

According to the BBC, the Standards Commissioner decided there was insufficient evidence to justify an inquiry, believing the rules on the use of parliamentary offices should be operated with "a sense of proportion".

02:37 PM

Labour frontbencher signals support for recess recall to discuss Covid regulations

A Christmas recess recall for Parliament to discuss any extension to Covid regulations could be on the cards after a Labour frontbencher signalled his support.

Shadow health minister Alex Norris told MPs he had previously declared he was prepared to meet at "any hour at any time" to consider some health regulations, adding: "I haven't changed my view."

The House of Commons is not expected to be sitting when the three-week review for newly introduced Covid regulations takes place on 20 December. The Commons enters recess on December 16 until January 5.

Tory MPs have already indicated their support for such a move, rather than allow the measures to roll over (see 1:51pm).

02:23 PM

Tory MP threatens to rebel over omicron Covid measures

A Conservative MP has suggested that Government is deliberately lengthening the isolation regulations, as he threatened to rebel.

The rules that MPs are voting on today stipulate that anyone who comes into close contact with an individual suspected to have the omicron variant must self-isolate.

Several backbenchers have raised this issue, with the isolation rule not due to expire until March next year - while the compulsory face mask rule will expire in three weeks.

Steve Brine, the member for Winchester, told the Commons: "Given that numbers are so small, I fail to see... how in three weeks time we will be any the wiser.

"Maybe that explains why the isolation regulations go through until next March," he added. "I am concerned about that."

He called on the minister to explain what was meant by "suspected" omicron cases, saying: "Unless I hear a very good answer on defining suspected, I won't be supporting tonight."

02:14 PM

'Chilling effect': Jenny Harries may have said what ministers believe, Tory MP implies

A Conservative MP has suggested that comments made by Dr Jenny Harries may be what ministers privately believe.

Steve Brine, MP for Winchester, told colleagues that he knew the senior official well and she was "a very careful and profession public servant".

He added: "She doesn't just say things off the cuff without thinking. The minister is quite right to say - I would have said it myself - she cannot think for others. But she can say what she thinks and what the Government's position is, which is the duty of the minister at the box...

"If that's the policy of the Government then we are in completely different territory, and the regulations that we're debating before us here today, I don't even know where to start with them because they're the fly on the back of the rhinoceros," he said.

Mr Brine noted that even if the regulations were fairly benign, the language used by ministers over the weekend were having a "chilling effect" on Christmas parties.

01:57 PM

Labour MP: Why isn't Government listening to Jenny Harries on socialising?

Labour's Rachael Maskell has questioned why the Government is not backing Dr Jenny Harries in her recommendation that people avoid unnecessary socialising in the run-up to Christmas.

Dr Harries was a "public health professional and therefore really does understand what public health measures need to be taken to secure our well being against this pandemic", the backbencher said.

She asked: "So why isn't the Government listening to what public health professionals are advising?"

Ms Throup replied: "We do listen to the advice of the health professionals all the time, but what we are debating today are statutory instruments on face coverings and self-isolation following travel."

01:55 PM

Trio of Tories attack Government over 'mission creep'

A trio of senior Conservatives have attacked the Government for encroaching on people's private lives yet again.

Steve Baker, a former minister, claimed the Government was "facing facing chaos and the overturning of longstanding Government principles" after Dr Jenny Harries suggested people should avoid socialising where possible in the run-up to Christmas.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922, warned of "mission creep" saying the "first instinct of Government" is to introduce further compulsory measures.

Sir Desmond Swayne added: "We are about to have another pingdemic as we approach Christmas, to the huge disadvantage of enterprises across the country."

01:51 PM

Vaccine minister fails to explain why isolation rules will run until March

The vaccines minister has failed repeatedly to explain why the returning rules on self-isolation will run until March next year, when other measures introduced in response to the omicron variant will be reviewed in three weeks.

Speaking in the Commons debate to approve new coronavirus regulations on the wearing of face coverings and self-isolation restrictions, Maggie Throup stressed the Government was not "implementing the entirety" of Plan B, which would include other measures such as a return to working from home.

However, amid concerns that they will cause another pingdemic Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, quizzed the minister over the fact the isolation requirement has " has no expiry which means they will run all the way until... March 2022 - why is that?"

Tory colleague Andrew Murrison asked her to explain the "logicality" for different expiry dates, adding that MPs would be willing to hold another vote on the measures during Christmas recess given the "extraordinary restrictions on liberty", they represent.

But Ms Throup told MPs the Government did not want "to have these regulations in palace for any longer than is necessary".

Regulations would not "remain in place a day longer than we need to".

01:34 PM

Christmas pingdemic beckons as minister admits omicron could force people to isolate

Fears are growing that Christmas could be derailed by another pingdemic, as new rules aimed at limiting the spread of the omicron variant come into force today.

Among the various measures, people who come into contact with someone who tests positive for the strain will have to isolate - prompting concerns that it could lead to a rerun of the situation this summer, in which thousands of people were forced to quarantine.

Gillian Keegan, the health minister, admitted the change in rules could see a spike in the numbers of people having to stay at home. "You could be self isolating over Christmas, you could be," she told Sky News.

But she insisted Christmas was currently "on track" and the new measures would buy the scientists time to establish how serious the variant is as we "deal with this unknown".

She added: "We very much hope we'll have a Christmas this year, after the awful experience last year. It is unfortunate timing [but] you should keep your Christmas plans in place."

01:33 PM

Minister fails to distance herself from Dr Jenny Harries

The vaccines minister has failed to distance herself from comments made by Dr Jenny Harries, suggesting people avoid socialising where possible, for a second time.

Maggie Throup told MPs the omicron variant represented "an emerging threat, one that is familiar but not yet well known" and the additional measures that came into force this morning were "proportionate, precautionary and balanced and are being made in response to this specific threat."

But Mark Harper, the former chief whip, noted that Dr Harries "said two things this morning, she said people shouldn't socialise and she also implied... that people should work from home".

He added that Boris Johnson was "very clear that was not the Government's position" and called on the minister to clarify that Dr Harries "was not speaking for the Government".

However Ms Throup replied: "What the Prime Minister has said is that we (are) putting these measures place, which I will talk more about and I cannot speak for any other person who goes on the airwaves."

01:28 PM

MPs raise concerns after public told not to socialise

MPs have been highlighting their concerns about some of the new messaging and measures announced on the back of the omicron variant.

Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, has had to fend off criticism from Mark Harper, Andrew Murrison and Sir Desmond Swayne, with the latter particularly concerned about comments made by Dr Jenny Harries this morning.

Although the Prime Minister has rowed back from Dr Harries' suggestion that people avoid socialising where possible, Ms Throup was less emphatic.

01:07 PM

Moderna boss 'probably right' on lower vaccine efficacy, warns PM

Boris Johnson has said the head of a vaccine manufacturer was "probably right" to warn that existing vaccines will be less effective against omicron than they have been against the delta variant.

Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, told the FT it would take several months to tweak the current vaccines to tackle omicron.

"There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level … we had with delta," he added.

Speaking to journalists while urging people to get their booster jab, Mr Johnson stressed that while there was "doubt about what exactly that variant can do" boosters would give "a lot of protection against all types of the virus".

Mr Bancel was "not saying the vaccines are ineffective against illness and death," the Prime Minister added.

01:02 PM

Lobby latest: Individuals must decide whether to attend Christmas parties

The Prime Minister's spokesman said it was "down to individuals" to decide whether they go ahead with Christmas parties.

Asked if it was the Government's position that there was no reason for people to cancel such events, Mr Johnson's spokesman said: "There is clear guidance for the public about what to consider, as I've talked about - things like respiratory hygiene and ventilation, but beyond that there is no change in our guidance.

"Clearly it's rightly down to individuals to decide what they think is the right approach but there is no Government guidance to that end."

Asked if the PM had any plans for Christmas parties, the spokesman said: "(We will) set out the Prime Minister's plans in the normal way."

12:59 PM

Lobby latest: Schools told to keep nativity shows on the road

Downing Street said there was no guidance to schools to suggest they should cancel nativity plays.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We have set out the restrictions that we are placing on the public.

"We know how important education has been for our children and that includes all aspects of our schooling.

"Schools rightly will need to consider their individual needs but there is no guidance to that end."

12:53 PM

Boris Johnson will get Covid booster this week

Boris Johnson will be getting his booster jab later this week, he has confirmed.

The Prime Minister told reporters he had been "waiting and waiting" to get the call to get his third Covid vaccine.

"And I am proud to say I will be going along duly later this week," he said.

"I have been waiting for my time to come, but now the JCVI have accelerated the timetable for everyone."

12:51 PM

Boris Johnson: We are not going to stop people socialising

The Government is not telling people how they should "live their lives" beyond wearing masks in some environments, and new rules on international travel, Boris Johnson has confirmed.

The Prime Minister was speaking after Dr Jenny Harries suggested people should not socialise unnecessarily.

He told reporters: "We are not changing the guidance on how you should be living your life except in a couple of ways - putting a mask on in some contexts... and making sure we check people when they arrive in this country.

"We need to delay the seeding of omicron in this country, that is why tough checks are the borders are so important," he added. "But we don't see any need currently to change the guidance about how people are living their lives and provided people continue to be sensible and cautious."

Asked about Dr Harries' comments, he replied: "What Jenny is saying is... people should continue to do things like make sure they should have lots of fresh air, wash hands, take precautions [but] we are not going to change the overall guidance."

12:47 PM

Boris Johnson: NHS can 'rise to challenge' of booster programme

Boris Johnson has said there is "no doubt at all" that the NHS, volunteers and the army can "rise to the challenge" of a surge in the booster programme, in a bid to head of the threat posed by the new omicron variant.

The Prime Minister told reporters: "I know people will be thinking 'have we got to make another great surge like we did earlier this year?' - and I'm afraid the answer is yes.

"We are going to throw everything at it and hope we can do the same thing again."

He added: "Everybody can see the situation we are in, and the huge amount of progress we have made against the delta variant. We now have his question about the omicron variant... while there is doubt about what that variant can do, what we do know is the boosters can give you protection."

Mr Johnson said the "crucial thing is for everybody to come and get your boosters".

12:43 PM

Lobby latest: No 10 backs away from Harries' warning on Christmas socialising

Downing Street has shied away from backing Dr Jenny Harries' suggestion that people should limit their social contacts to curb the spread of the new coronavirus variant (see 10:02am).

Asked if Dr Harries' view that people should try to avoid socialising when they do not need to over the Christmas period was shared by the Prime Minister, his 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 if people should follow what he was saying or what Dr Harries was saying, the spokesman said: "The public should follow the guidance as set out by the Government and indeed the Prime Minister at the weekend."

12:41 PM

Covid-related school absences rise over fortnight

The proportion of children out of school for Covid 19-related reasons in England has risen over the past fortnight, Government figures show.

The Department for Education estimates 2.6 per cent of all pupils - around 208,000 children - did not attend class for Covid-related reasons on November 25, up from 1.6 per cent two weeks before.

Among pupils absent for Covid-19 reasons, the main reason was a confirmed case of coronavirus, with around 106,000 pupils off for this reason compared to 67,000 on November 11.

It comes before the new rule, in which children who come into contact with a positive case of the omicron variant must isolate for 10 days, came into place.

12:30 PM

Cabinet ministers told to expect more omicron cases in UK

Dr Jenny Harries' suggestion that people should not socialise unnecessarily has sparked concern among Tory backbenchers - Jeff Gilbert
Dr Jenny Harries' suggestion that people should not socialise unnecessarily has sparked concern among Tory backbenchers - Jeff Gilbert

Cabinet ministers were this morning given a briefing by Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency whose comments earlier today have sparked concern among Tory backbenchers (see 11:02am).

Dr Harries updated the Prime Minister and his top team about the omicron variant, alongside Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.

There are currently five confirmed cases in England and 14 in the UK, but more are "likely to be found in the coming days", ministers were told.

"While further time is needed to study the characteristics of this variant and with work ongoing at Porton Down to assess it, both the CMO and CSA emphasised that getting a booster vaccine was the best way to gain protection against new and existing variants."

12:24 PM

Government accused of abandoning rural communities after Storm Arwen

Storm Arwen: Lib Dems are putting pressure on the Tories as they fight a by-election in North Shropshire - PA
Storm Arwen: Lib Dems are putting pressure on the Tories as they fight a by-election in North Shropshire - PA

The Government has been accused of abandoning rural communities who have been left without power for days after Storm Arwen.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP and Helen Morgan, the party's candidate in North Shropshire, have written to ministers urging them to step in and provide food, emergency accommodation and other essential supplies.

The letter also calls for new rules requiring electricity companies to invest into local power networks, to help prevent outages in future, as well as bringing in the armed forces to provide electricity generators to deal with the “frankly unacceptable” immediate situation.

Mr Farron added: “It is a disgrace that families in rural areas have been abandoned by the Government for days following Storm Arwen. Ministers need to urgently step up and provide emergency support...

"People in our rural communities are fed up with being taken for granted and left without proper support when things go wrong," he added. "We are calling for strict new rules that would force electricity providers to invest more in local power networks, with a duty to restore electricity as soon as possible when power cuts do happen."

12:16 PM

Boris Johnson visits booster centre ahead of press conference

Boris Johnson meets people getting their booster vaccines at a primary care centre - Paul Grover for The Telegraph
Boris Johnson meets people getting their booster vaccines at a primary care centre - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

You can expect the PM to be boosterish for boosters when we hear from him...

11:57 AM

Labour reshuffle part of 'inexorable shift to right', claims Diane Abbott

Sir Keir Starmer's reshuffle is part of the "slow, inexorable move to the right", Diane Abbott has said.

The Corbynite MP told Sky News that with the appointment of the likes of Yvette Cooper and others, her party leader was "putting the greatest possible distance between him and the 10 pledges" he had made in his leadership campaign.

"We are hearing very little about abolishing Universal Credit, about abolishing tuition fees, about taking things back into common ownership... with this new shadow cabinet," she added.

"I just think this is a slow inexorable move to the right," Ms Abbott said, describing it as a "vote winning gesture" that might backfire.

"Will this win us votes in Scotland? I don't think this will necessarily win us all the votes we need to win, especially in Scotland," the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP said.

She added it was "bizarre" to have carried out the reshuffle on the same day Angela Rayner was giving a big speech, saying Sir Keir must restore the "fractured" relationship with his deputy.

11:46 AM

Sherelle Jacobs: The failed Whitehall blob threatens to push Britain back into lockdown

Days before news of the omicron variant broke, the former chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, Dame Kate Bingham, paid a tearful tribute to her liberty-loving late father at an Oxford University lecture, writes Sherelle Jacobs.

Tom Bingham, a law lord, had 19 years earlier addressed the very same room, warning that while freedom from arbitrary detention is the oldest human right, it is the first to be curtailed in an emergency.

It appeared to be a pointed reference as well as a personal one: Dame Kate went on to caution that the taskforce's win had been converted into an “own goal” as civil servants revert to old practices. She concluded with an ominous call to overhaul a broken Whitehall – not just to protect the vulnerable, but “us all”.

Put more plainly, one might argue that the Whitehall blob is the biggest threat to freedom in Britain today. And the situation has become far more stark in the days since.

For the great risk is that if the blob fails to deliver now, the omicron variant could terrify ministers into leading us back down the path of draconian restrictions – and even into further lockdowns.

Read more from Sherelle here

11:41 AM

Liz Truss channels Thatcher on Estonia trip

LIz Truss in Estonia today - No10 Downing Street
LIz Truss in Estonia today - No10 Downing Street

Liz Truss has long made much of her love for Margaret Thatcher, channelling the former prime minister's libertarian spirit as she looks to strike post-Brexit free trade deals around the world.

But, posing in a tank as she visits Estonia, it appears the Foreign Secretary is looking to emulate the Iron Lady when it comes to defence and foreign policy.

See 10:12am for more.

"Defeat? I do not recognize the meaning of the word." - Rex Features
"Defeat? I do not recognize the meaning of the word." - Rex Features

11:24 AM

The new Covid rules set out to curb spread of the omicron variant

England will face new restrictions as of today, to try to tackle the omicron variant of Covid-19 that is causing significant concern among scientists.

Boris Johnson is scheduled to give another Covid press conference - at 4pm today - following a surprise appearance at the weekend, in which he announced a series of tighter restrictions that came into force from this morning.

The new restrictions are as follows:

  1. Anyone arriving in the UK will be asked to take a PCR test for Covid-19 by the second day and must self-isolate until they provide a negative test.

  2. All contacts of people who do test positive with the suspected variant will have to self-isolate for 10 days. The Government confirmed that this applies to children.

  3. The rules on face coverings are changing. They will become compulsory on public transport and in shops from next week, but not including hospitality. Teachers and pupils in Year 7 and above are now being "strongly advised" to wear masks in communal areas outside classrooms in England.

The Prime Minister said the "temporary and precautionary" measures would be reviewed in three weeks, just a week before Christmas.

11:19 AM

GPs don't have time to administer Covid boosters, warns union

GPs do not have time to administer booster vaccines on top of routine health checks and should be relieved from other daily obligations to meet the Government's new target.

Dr Farah Jameel, recently elected chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, told Radio 4’s Today programme there was an “unhelpful emphasis and obsession on management of undeliverable targets” and said it was “absurd” that they had not been lifted, in view of the crisis.

Dr Jameel, who was elected earlier this month as the union polled its members on industrial action, said: “There just isn't enough workforce, we just can't do everything and we've had to prioritise where we focus, of course, because we are bound at the end of the day by our contracts.”

She said: “Bringing in healthy patients to measure their blood pressure, I think, whilst important in the wake of an unfolding crisis becomes something that can wait using our clinical priorities. We just cannot deliver everything."

11:02 AM

Tory MPs hold pre-Covid vote meeting to discuss concerns

Conservative MPs are meeting this morning to discuss their reservations over the reintroduction of Covid restrictions, ahead of key vote this afternoon.

Members of the Covid Recovery Group have told The Telegraph they are concerned about proposals to allow rules requiring anyone coming into close contact with an individual who tests positive for the omicron variant to isolate, as they appear to run until March next year.

Backbenchers are threatening to rebel on this measure, for fear it could lead to a return of the pingdemic experienced this summer, in which thousands of people were forced into quarantine. Other measures, such as mandatory mask wearing, come up for review in three weeks.

MPs are also deeply unhappy about comments by Dr Jenny Harries, who this morning said people should not socialise unnecessarily in the run-up to Christmas (see 10:02am).

One said: "Who put her in charge of who people can meet?"

10:56 AM

Oxford vaccine manufacturer can 'rapidly' update jab if needed

The University of Oxford has said that it can "rapidly" update it's Covid-19 vaccine "if it should be necessary" amid rising concerns about the Omicron variant.

A spokesperson for the university said: "Due to the very recent discovery of the new B.1.1.529 (Omicron) strain of coronavirus, there are limited data available at this time.

"As with any new variant, we will carefully evaluate the implications of the emergence of B.1.1.529 for vaccine immunity.

"Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different.

"However, we have the necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated Covid-19 vaccine if it should be necessary."

10:33 AM

SNP looking to dock Boris Johnson's ministerial salary

The SNP will seek something "meaningful" from its opposition day debate today, Ian Blackford has said.

The party's Westminster leader told Times Radio that rather than using the day to secure a motion of no confidence in Boris Johnson, MPs would be voting on whether his ministerial salary should "be docked on the basis of his behaviour".

While the situation with Covid should take priority, Mr Blackford said: "The fact remains this is a Prime Minister that has shamed our democracy, shamed our Parliament.... the straw that broke the camel's back was the behaviour over Owen Paterson."

But it was "serial behaviour" he added, that included "stuffing his friends and cronies in the House of Lords" - but Mr Johnson was now "past the peak of his powers", the opposition figure added.

10:22 AM

Watch: Sajid Javid escorts journalist to get Covid booster

Sajid Javid is on a mission to ensure everyone eligible in the country gets their booster jabs.

So when the Health Secretary was being interviewed by Sky News' Jon Craig, and found out the 64-year-old journalist had not been able to get his jab, the minister made sure he got it there and then.

Watch the video below to see.

10:12 AM

Foreign Secretary to use first Nato meeting to issue warning to Russia

Liz Truss will use her first Nato meeting as Foreign Secretary to issue a warning to Russia that any incursion into Ukraine would be "a strategic mistake".

The meeting of the Nato Foreign Ministers, which takes place in Latvia this week, will see Ms Truss underscore the importance of the "network of liberty", and urge allies to stand firm against destabilising actions by Russia and Belarus.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Ms Truss said: “We want a world where freedom and democracy don’t just survive, they thrive. To this end, we will stand with our fellow democracies against Russia’s malign activity."

She added: "We have seen this playbook from the Kremlin before when Russia falsely claimed its illegal annexation of Crimea was a response to Nato aggression. Nato is an alliance forged on the principle of defence, not provocation. Any suggestion that Nato is provoking the Russians is clearly false.

"Any action by Russia to undermine the freedom and democracy that our partners enjoy would be a strategic mistake."

10:02 AM

Don't socialise 'when we don't need to' ahead of Christmas, Britons told

The head of the UK's Health Security Agency has urged people not to socialise if they do not need to, amid concerns about the new omicron variant of Covid.

Dr Jenny Harries told BBC Radio 4's Today programme 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 added: "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."

09:54 AM

Piers Corbyn would be issued with a fine from today over face mask refusal, says London Mayor

Sadiq Khan has said welcomed the return of the power to fine those who do not wear masks on London's transport.

Reacting to a video of Piers Corbyn not wearing a mask on the Tube, the London Mayor told Sky News: "Up until only this morning all we could do is ask him to leave public transport, without the ability to issue fines. Because of the changes from the Government overnight he will now be issued with a fine if he did that today."

He added: "The really important thing is this, we know this rule change, with the ability to have enforcement, the ability to issue fines does lead to behaviour change... before July 19 roughly speaking 85 per cent of those using public transport wore a face mask. We issued almost 2,000 fines before July 19."

See the video below if you haven't already.

09:40 AM

Mark Harper to challenge ministers over end of 'pingdemic' restrictions

Mark Harper has said he will be "asking the Government questions" about exactly when the new restrictions will end during today's debate in the Commons.

The former chief whip and chairman of the Covid Recovery Group said: "Ministers assure us that these new Covid measures will only last three weeks.

"The regulations on self-isolation, which herald another pingdemic, don't expire until 24 March 2022 though... which is it?"

09:33 AM

Analysis: Why face masks became the symbol of a divided Britain

Of all the options on the menu, none is so divisive in Britain as the wearing of masks - AP
Of all the options on the menu, none is so divisive in Britain as the wearing of masks - AP

Tis the season. Advent calendars waiting on mantelpieces. The jingle-jangle of sleigh bells on an endless muzak loop. A portly man promising a season of goodwill only for a grisly Covid variant to change everything and No 10’s advice to slip from ho-ho-ho to no-no-no.

The crackdown’s first edict is already here. Today, like some unwelcome rehash of a movie you didn’t like the first time round, is Mask Day 2. At 4am today, the new regime dawned, replacing the do-as-you-see-fit attitude that followed “Freedom Day” on July 19 with an order to mask up in shops and on public transport.

It had to be masks. There are a host of so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) able to dent Covid, from handwashing and work-from-home directives to full national lockdown. But, of all the options on the menu, none is so divisive in Britain as the wearing of masks.

Read more from Harry de Quetteville here

09:18 AM

Labour is 'moving North', not right, insists shadow minister

Sir Keir Starmer with his new top team - PA
Sir Keir Starmer with his new top team - PA

Labour MP Lisa Nandy has said the party is moving North, not centre-right, following a reshuffle which saw the return of Blairite former minister Yvette Cooper.

Ms Cooper, who has been the chairman of the home affairs committee, was yesterday made shadow home secretary while David Lammy was named shadow foreign secretary and Wes Streeting was promoted to shadow health secretary. Rachel Reeves remains in her role as shadow chancellor.

Asked if Labour is moving to the centre-right politically, Ms Nandy told Sky News: "We're moving North; left or right, you can keep that debate. We're going out into the country and we're going to start delivering for people in towns, villages and cities that have been completely and utterly abandoned by the political system.

"You go to Grimsby, you go to Barnsley, you go to Aberdeen, you will find proud communities that have a contribution to make. But so often they are held back, not by the skills of their young people, not by the abilities in those communities, not by their own ambition, but by a national Government that isn't investing in the infrastructure that would bring good jobs."

09:09 AM

Return of Covid measures 'proportionate and responsible', says Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has insisted the return of new Covid measures are "proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new variant".

The Prime Minister is due to give a press conference later today, as the Government looks to turbo charge the booster programme amid concerns over the new omicron variant.

09:07 AM

Labour's Lisa Nandy plays down impact of reshuffle 'circus'

Lisa Nandy has not spoken to Labour's deputy leader since the party's reshuffle was announced as she played down the impact of yesterday's "circus".

Monday morning was overshadowed by an apparent chaotic row with Angela Rayner, who had not been briefed about Sir Keir Starmer's planned reshuffle, which began during her long-planned speech on sleaze.

Ms Nandy, who was moved from foreign secretary to levelling up secretary, told BBC Breakfast: "I have not spoken to Angela since the reshuffle was announced. I have been too busy getting a team together and putting a plan together."

She added: "I have been through a lot of reshuffles over the past 11 years - I think that the leader makes the decisions, the gaffer picks the team, that's how it goes and that's how it has always gone.

"Frankly, I couldn't care less about the circus of who's in, and who's out, who's up, who's down, who knew, who didn't."

08:58 AM

Lisa Nandy rubbishes suggestion that she was demoted in Labour reshuffle

Labour's Lisa Nandy said her role change in yesterday's reshuffle "felt a little like coming home".

The frontbencher told BBC Breakfast the job title - which is shadow levelling up, housing, communities, and local government secretary - was "a very long title that Michael Gove has concocted for himself," but the responsibility was "to deliver on the broken promises of the last 11 years".

The Wigan MP added that it's "a big agenda" with "a hell of a lot to do".

Asked if her new job felt like a demotion, the frontbencher said: "It felt a little like coming home, to be honest."

She added: "I am going to make it my mission to bring Labour home to people and to deliver on promises that the Government simply isn't capable of doing."

08:44 AM

Mask wearing to be enforced through 'good sense of British public', says minister

A minister has said the return of mandatory mask wearing will be largely down to the "good sense of the British public", amid concerns that shop workers will have to enforce the rule again.

This morning Richard Walker, the managing director of Iceland, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he would not be asking his staff to order customers to wear coverings when in store, amid concerns that it puts them at risk of verbal and even physical abuse.

Asked how the Government planned to enforce the new rule, which came in at 4am this morning, Gillian Keegan said: "Well, largely through the good sense of the British public who will listen to the rules and do what they can to protect each other."

She added: "The police do have powers to enforce."

08:40 AM

Boris Johnson to give Covid press conference today

Boris Johnson in Westminster this morning - Nigel Howard Media
Boris Johnson in Westminster this morning - Nigel Howard Media

Boris Johnson will give a Covid press conference this afternoon, Downing Street has confirmed.

The Prime Minister is expected to set out plans to double the Government's booster programme, in a bid to bolster the so-called "wall of defence" provided by the vaccines.

Currently around 2.5m boosters are being given every week, but Mr Johnson is expected to confirm plans to turbo charge that by a further million a week in light of the emergence of the omicron variant.

08:37 AM

Working from home could return if there are 'significant surges' in Covid

Working from home advice could return if the omicron variant starts to spiral, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said.

Dr Jenny Harries told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that Sage advice suggested working from home would be a "key" measure to reintroduce "if we have significant surges in Covid cases".

She added: "But it's probably worth just thinking through at the moment; although I'm sure we will have more cases announced, we do only have five confirmed cases (of the new Omicron variant in England) and 10 highly probable at the moment.

"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."

08:34 AM

Saving Christmas is 'in the Government's gift', claims Labour frontbencher

A Labour frontbencher has said saving Christmas is "in the Government's gift", but claimed the current situation was "shambolic".

Lisa Nandy, who was yesterday made shadow housing and communities secretary in Sir Keir Starmer's reshuffle, told Sky News: "The vast majority of people are doing what is asked of them - wearing masks, getting the booster jab, social distancing.

"My little boy's school has got its doors and windows open, trying to increase ventilation, even in the cold.

"People are trying their best, but there are some big holes in the Government's plans, particularly around travel.

"The experience of coming back - as somebody who has just served as shadow foreign secretary I know this well - and taking a day two PCR test is very shambolic for a lot of people. The Government isn't even checking up."

08:32 AM

Be not afraid: Families told to attend nativity plays despite omicron

Families should be able to attend school nativity plays despite the new variant of coronavirus, a health minister has said.

Asked on LBC about such events, amid reports some had been cancelled or restricted, Gillian Keegan said: "Well, yes, I think we've said 'go about your plans'.

"I mean, obviously, you know, wear a mask, be cautious, you know, all the other... all the things that people usually put in place. To be honest, I think most people are being... have been sensible all along.

"But we're not saying to people cancel your plans. And you know, I'm sure it'd be lovely to go to a nativity play right now."

08:30 AM

People should 'not worry too much' about Christmas being cancelled, says Sage scientist

A Sage member has said people should not "worry too much" about the prospects of Christmas being cancelled this year - but said the public must follow new measures to ensure "a good chance of gaining some control here".

Professor Paul Moss, from the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at the University of Birmingham, told Sky News: "The two ways that we're adopting to try and control this are: one, in behavioural change to reduce transmission: the travel restrictions; more lateral flows; masking.

"And the second big factor is the immunity and we know that we may lose some immunity with this virus. So what is happening is we are boosting our immune levels to super-high levels with the plans that were introduced yesterday, and that should retain some protection."

Scientists need three weeks to assess the omicron variant, saying "we will know a lot more before Christmas".

08:20 AM

Nine cases of omicron identified in Scotland, health secretary confirms

Nine cases of the omicron variant of coronavirus have now been identified in Scotland, the country's health secretary Humza Yousaf has said.

Mr Yousaf said there are now five cases in the Lanarkshire area and four in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, up from the six across the two areas announced on Monday.

Asked if there was any connection between Cop26 or a recent South Africa rugby match, he told BBC Good Morning Scotland: "There's nothing that links these cases or indeed the variant back to Cop26 or indeed the rugby match."

He added: "There's nothing that indicates these cases or this new variant has come via the rugby or Cop26 but that work of course is still ongoing ."

08:18 AM

Minister: I would rather overreact than under-react to omicron variant

The Government is seeking to strike the right balance between keeping the country going and dampening down the spread of the new omicron variant, a minister has said.

Gillian Keegan admitted it was "difficult" to get the balance right, but stressed: "I would rather overreact than under-react at this stage"

She told Sky News: "We have been here before... we don't underestimate the seriousness of this [but] we're trying to get that balance and proportion and it is difficult because it's unknown."

The health minister added: "We have put some more countries on the red list but we are not doing things that would shut travel down altogether - we are very much trying to keep things going."

08:14 AM

'We have facilities, vaccine and people' to meet booster needs, says minister

The booster programme can reach the numbers required to fend off the threat of the new omicron variant, a minister has insisted.

Gillian Keegan, the health minster, told Sky News the systems would be up and running "in the next couple of days", with the programme being staggered by age as before.

She added: "But within the next couple of months... we are pretty good at this, standing up these operations, so we do know what to do but we just need to give the NHS a bit of time to operationalise... because we're doubling the eligible people, more or less, who are due a booster now."

"We do have the facilities, we do have the vaccine and we do have the people."

07:58 AM

Face masks legally required in hairdressers and takeaways

Boris Johnson said the new measures were "proportionate and responsible and will buy us time in the face of this new variant". - AP
Boris Johnson said the new measures were "proportionate and responsible and will buy us time in the face of this new variant". - AP

Face masks will be legally required in hairdressers from today after the Government extended the list of settings at which they will be mandatory.

Guidance published on Monday night said coverings would be needed in personal care and beauty salons, as well as tattoo parlours.

They will be required at takeaways, estate agents, solicitors, loan providers and veterinary clinics and in taxis, private hire vehicles and driving instruction cars or vans.

The Government described the rules as "targeted measures" to prevent the spread of the omicron variant and a "precaution", while more data is gathered on its transmissibility and potential resistance to vaccines.

07:58 AM

Good Morning

Ministers are scrambling to get on the front foot, as the Omicron variant threatens to disrupt Christmas.

We are expecting to hear from the Prime Minister later today about the stepping up of the booster programme. We will also hear from Health Secretary Sajid Javid, as MPs vote on the reintroduction of new measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.

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