Brits have been told to “enjoy Christmas” by the Deputy Prime Minister today - just as a SAGE advisor raised the threat of potential restrictions in January.
Dominic Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show people should “get their loved ones around them” despite the rapid rise of the Omicron variant.
Mr Raab said he would “continue to be vigilant” but “we’re in a much more confident position because of the vaccine, because of the boosters,” Mirror Online reports.
He said: “I think it’s going to be a great Christmas. All the family, friends, loved ones being able to get together in a way we haven’t been able to do for a couple of years is really important.”
Asked if he’d see elderly relatives he replied: “Yes.
“Of course it always depends a little bit on their personal condition, if they’re safeguarding it may be different.
“But I think people should enjoy Christmas, get their loved ones around them, celebrate it in a way we haven’t been able to in the past.”
Yet moments before Mr Raab spoke, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) suggested restrictions could be needed in January.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, of the University of Cambridge, said Omicron “may actually be milder but we haven't got enough data yet to be able to say”.
Speaking to Sky News the statistician added: “Just like last year with the Alpha variant, this is a terrible time for a variant to come along.
“The next two weeks are probably some of the highest-risk periods with a lot of indoor socialising that we know is extremely high risk.
“It’s appalling timing. I’m sure the government would love not to disrupt Christmas. What happens after Christmas of course is another matter.”
He added: “The new year is quite likely to see some quite, er, a lot of challenges to face. And have SAGE have said, that could very well mean more stringent measures.
“I could mention working from home. So far it’s not been recommended but that is known to be extremely effective at halving the number of close contacts people have.”
SAGE warned last week that more Covid restrictions could be needed in the coming weeks to fight the Omicron variant.
Boris Johnson is planning to review England’s new face mask and travel testing laws by December 20 - once experts have a better idea if the strain evades vaccines.
At that point they could be lessened, increased, or extended exactly as they are.
But at a meeting last Monday, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said it was possible the situation won’t even wait that long.
They agreed: “Even if measures are introduced immediately, there may not be time to fully ascertain whether they are sufficient before decisions are needed on further action.”
They went on: “The situation could develop quickly over the coming weeks.
“Decision-makers may need to act while there is still a high level of uncertainty, including considering the potential need for stringent response measures.”
On Tuesday the UK will bring back mandatory pre-departure tests for all inbound travellers - around a week after they were backed by Labour and SAGE.
Mr Raab defended the belated announcement, saying: “We have got to take the measures targeted forensically to stop the new variant seeding in this country to create a bigger problem.
"We have taken a balanced approach but we are always alert to extra risk that takes us back not forward."
It came as a former top SAGE member - who stepped down last month - blasted the “political drift and lack of leadership” that “is prolonging the pandemic for everyone”.
He warned Omicron shows the world is "closer to the start of the pandemic than the end”, and progress in tackling Covid is “being squandered” by “blinkered” western nations hoarding vaccines.
Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the Commons Health Committee, warned “we have been asleep on the watch”.
He told Times Radio: “I think there could have been a lot more energy in making sure that we got extra, additional vaccines out to poorer countries more quickly.
“What's happening at the moment is we're sending surplus vaccines out, but sometimes they've only got a month left before they expire. And in a very poor country with not very good infrastructure, it then becomes very difficult to get those vaccines into people's arms quickly.”
After days of conflicting government advice, Justice Secretary Mr Raab said he will not be holding a Christmas party for his department - even though it would be allowed under Covid rules.
He told Sky: "We won't be having a Ministry of Justice-wide Christmas party this year. We will be having appropriate drinks at a smaller scale.
"The Government wants people to be able to enjoy Christmas this year. People should feel free to go and enjoy those celebrations and every employer will think about the right way to do it and I'm the same as everybody else."
Children’s Commissioner for England Rachel de Souza urged Boris Johnson not to close schools for Covid reasons again, even if the variant surges.
Speaking after the murder of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, she said: “There’s no doubt lockdown was such a shock to the nation that it weakened the system of support.”
She added: “I would definitely advise not to do this if there is any other option”.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly said closing schools would be an absolute last resort, even in a lockdown. Mr Raab today said he could not give an “iron clad” guarantee but his “instincts” are against it.
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