Top UK health official cautions against festive season social events

Christmas parties and other social events in the festive period should not go ahead if they are not necessary in order to help slow the spread of the new Covid variant, one of the UK’s most senior health officials has suggested.

Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, urged everyone in the UK to cut down their social contact – even if only by a little – as fears grow that existing vaccines will prove less effective against Omicron than against other variants.

“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,” Harries told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The former chief medical officer for England added: “So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs” would be important.

She said that, even if vaccine effectiveness was reduced, booster jabs caused protection to “shoot up” and remained, therefore, a useful step.

Harries said the 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, adding: “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 so far 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.

There are growing fears that the new variant will plunge the world deeper into crisis and force the reintroduction of more restrictive curbs on people’s lives. In the UK, that has prompted particular concerns of Christmas plans being curtailed again.

The government has touted a “plan B” for the winter, which includes tougher measures ministers have so far refused to enact; preferring limited restrictions and a drive to encourage take-up of booster jabs. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, is due to lead a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday as part of that effort.

Asked about the prospect of Christmas being cancelled, 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, telling 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.”

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