Scale back your Christmas plans, say Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty

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As Covid cases hit record high for single day, PM and Chief Medical Officer urge public to ‘prioritise’ their social interactions

Scale back your Christmas plans, say Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty
Boris Johnson implores the nation to have a booster jab at his Downing Street briefing
Boris Johnson implores the nation to have a booster jab at his Downing Street briefing

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The public is being urged to scale back their socialising in the run-up to Christmas as the Chief Medical Officer suggested that they should only attend events they consider a “priority”.

Chris Whitty told a Downing Street briefing that people should “prioritise the social interactions that mean a lot to them” in the following weeks.

Boris Johnson said that the public should “think carefully” before attending any social gatherings, especially those involving strangers.

It was a marked switch in emphasis from last week, when the Prime Minister said people should “keep going with Christmas parties” but avoid going into work.

The warnings around Christmas socialising came as daily Covid figures reached a record high of 78,610, the highest daily figure recorded during the pandemic.

Health officials on Wednesday warned that rates were now doubling in less than two days.

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On current trends, this would mean more than 2.5 million cases by Christmas Day, and eight million people in isolation, if Britain’s testing capacity was able to keep up.

Record day

On Wednesday, evidence from restaurants, workplaces and traffic suggested that people had begun a self-imposed lockdown in an effort to avoid being in isolation on Christmas Day. Anyone who tests positive from Wednesday onwards will be in isolation for 10 days and unable to leave home until after Christmas Day.Advertisement

It was, however, a record day for booster jabs. On Wednesday, the Government announced 656,711 third vaccines were administered across the UK on Tuesday.

Prof Whitty said the speed at which the virus was moving was “phenomenal” while the head of the UK Health Security Agency said “quite staggering” figures were expected in coming days.

On Wednesday night, the country’s Chief Medical Officer said: “I think what most people are doing – and I think this seems very sensible – is prioritising the social interactions that mean a lot to them and, to prioritise those ones, de-prioritising ones that mean much less to them.”

“The point I’m making is don’t mix with people you don’t have to, either work or for things that don’t really matter to you.”

“Prioritise what matters,” he added, saying: “I don’t think you need a medical degree to know that is a sensible thing to do with an incredibly infectious virus, about which there are quite a lot of things we don’t know.”

Dr Nikki Kanani, director of primary care at NHS England, said that she was “scaling back” her Christmas plans and also suggested people should avoid going to football matches or other large sports events.

She said: “My advice would be if you’re going to go to a stadium at the weekend, make it one when you can get your vaccine, or help out to give a vaccine rather than thinking about watching a match.”

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said that suggestions to limit socialising would have a “chilling effect” on the hospitality industry.

The British Chambers of Commerce said that the comments would have an “enormous impact” on restaurants and bars and called for the Government to provide help for the sector.

At a Downing Street briefing, Prof Whitty painted a bleak picture of the situation facing Britain.

He said: “I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up.

“What we’ve got is two epidemics on top of one another – an existing delta epidemic, roughly flat, and a very rapidly growing omicron epidemic on top of it.”

The Prime Minister insisted this Christmas would be “considerably better” than last year, but urged the public to “think carefully” before attending any social functions.

‘Get a test’

He told the briefing: “I said many times that I thought that this Christmas would be considerably better than last Christmas. I stick to that. We’re not cancelling events. We’re not closing down hospitality, we’re not cancelling people’s parties or their ability to to mix, what we are saying is, think carefully before you go. What kind of an event is it? Are you likely to meet people that are vulnerable? Are you going to meet loads of people you haven’t met before? Get a test. Make sure that there’s ventilation, wear a mask on transport and get tested before you go.”

Only a week earlier, when asked what his message was on Christmas parties and nativity plays, the Prime Minister said they should not be cancelled. “We think it’s OK currently, on what we can see, to keep going with Christmas parties, but obviously everybody should exercise due caution,” Mr Johnson said.

On Wednesday, Dr Kanani told the Downing Street briefing: “I want to see my immediate family on Christmas Day. So I’m going to be really, really careful until I get to that moment … watching what I do, and prioritising working on the vaccine programme, working in general practice so that I can get those special moments with my family.”

She said she was scaling back Christmas plans, saying there would be “far fewer things that I’ll do with my children as we run up to Christmas” focussing instead on being a family at home.

Almost 25 million people have now received a booster jab and around 20 million people will be eligible for them by the end of the year.

The roll-out will see mass vaccination sites opened at football grounds, with Wembley Stadium open to booked appointments and walk-ins on Sunday, and jabs offered at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, on Wednesday described the omicron coronavirus variant as “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic”.

She told the Commons Transport Select Committee: “I’m sure for example, the numbers that we see on data over the next few days will be quite staggering compared to the rate of growth that we’ve seen in cases for previous variants.”

Threat that NHS could be overwhelmed next month

On Wednesday, a government scientist said the NHS could be overwhelmed next month.

Prof Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said he thought that was “a very real possibility”.

The scientist from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine raised fears of a “concertina effect” with “four months of epidemic” all hitting hospitals at one time.

Speaking about infection levels, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re probably now at the level that we have been at in the past, sort of back in January, and it does look as though it’s going to continue beyond that and go over it.”

It came as the hospitality industry warned that Britain had been pushed into “lockdown by stealth” with a wave of pre-Christmas cancellations hitting restaurants, pubs and hotels.

With 10 days until Christmas Day, vast swathes of the population are trying to avoid a coronavirus infection which would force them into isolation over the holiday period.

Tony Danker, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general, said warnings from the Government were creating a “chilling effect” on many sectors of the economy.

“It seems to us that, whilst we have measures to keep the economy open, we have messages that have ended up closing much of it down.

Empty tables outside a West End pub
London’s West End was unusually quiet on Wednesday CREDIT: Jamie Lorriman

“People should be worried enough to go and get a booster urgently, but not so worried to stop going to shops, restaurants or airports,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The need for the Chief Medical Officer to advise the public to ‘de-prioritise social contacts’ at tonight’s press conference will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector. Despite this still we heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from the Government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions.”

One economic think tank warned that hospitality businesses would see £1.3 billion wiped off their revenues in December because of late cancellations, while new figures suggested offices are operating at 12 percent of capacity – the lowest levels since March.

Tom Kerridge, one of Britain’s best-known chefs, said 654 diners had cancelled bookings at just one of his six restaurants and warned that “many places are going to crumble”, while Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the theatre impresario, told The Telegraph: “The last 10 days’ fearsome government rhetoric … have seriously affected forward bookings and, just looking round the streets, it’s obvious that footfall is only a fraction of what it should be for one of the busiest weeks of the year.”

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “There is a great desire for people to protect a family Christmas and therefore they are adjusting their behaviour accordingly in advance. You are seeing restrictions by stealth.”

Hospitality UK estimated that 40 per cent of Christmas bookings at restaurants and hotels had been cancelled in the past fortnight.

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