Whitty: Omicron is a 'serious threat' and people should socialise 'carefully'

16 December 2021, 07:11 | Updated: 16 December 2021, 08:12

By Asher McShane

Professor Chris Whitty has issued a plea for people to cut back on social events and 'prioritise' who they spend time with ahead of Christmas due to the threat from the Omicron variant.

Fresh calls are being issued today for further support to the hospitality sector.

Boris Johnson has urged people to "think carefully" before attending celebrations but did not go as far as imposing any further restrictions at a press conference yesterday.

The variant is surging across the UK, with daily confirmed Covid-19 cases reaching a record high of 78,610 yesterday.

Prof Whitty warned "records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks".

Businesses warned of a fresh threat hitting their existence as people weigh up whether to risk nights out or cancel to improve the chances of spending Christmas with their families.

Read more: Omicron fightback: PM hails 'Britain's jab heroes' and issues plea for volunteers

Read more: UK's vital PCR test capacity less than it was a year ago - as Omicron rapidly spreads

One scientific adviser said it was possible one million people could be isolating on Christmas Day, with the 10-day isolation period for positive tests now covering December 25.

Prof Whitty told the public "don't mix with people you don't have to" at events that are not among the most important to them.

"I really think people should be prioritising those things - and only those things - that really matter to them," he told a Downing Street press conference.

"Because otherwise the risk of someone getting infected at something that doesn't really matter to them and then not being able to do the things that matter to them obviously goes up."

The Prime Minister declined to go as far as Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has given specific guidance to urge people to limit their socialising to three households around Christmas.

"We're not cancelling events, we're not closing hospitality, we're not cancelling people's parties or their ability to mix," he said.

"What we are saying is think carefully before you go. What kind of event is it? Are you likely to meet people who are vulnerable, are you going to meet loads of people you haven't met before? And get a test."

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was on a Government work trip to California, where he used to live, faced almost instantaneous calls for fresh support packages.

British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith said Prof Whitty's call "will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses".

"Despite this still we heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from Government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions," she said.

Tory MP Anne Marie Morris added: "If we're effectively telling people not to visit hospitality venues this Christmas, then this needs to be accompanied by immediate sector specific financial support from the Treasury.

The Treasury insisted some support packages remain in place and said it will "continue to respond proportionately to the changing path of the virus", but set out no new measures.

A spokeswoman added: "The Chancellor is in the US on a long-planned trip conducting Government business."

Professor Stephen Reicher, who is on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), said Mr Johnson declining to be as explicit as Prof Whitty was "deeply problematic".

"He couldn't say don't go to nightclubs if you want to meet your loved ones at Christmas, and I think that leads to mixed messaging which is really problematic," he told Channel 4 News.

"Because the clear message that needs to go out to everybody is yes get your booster, that will work in a few weeks' time, but now to stop the new variant taking over be cautious, be careful, don't socialise unless you have to."