Christmas plans were in chaos tonight as No10 gave conflicting messages over festive parties.
Boris Johnson insisted they should go ahead before a business minister urged them to be scrapped. One pub boss said: “It’s terribly confusing.”
With Christmas approaching, families and festive revellers are desperate to know what they can or cannot do as the Omicron variant threat grows.
But the public were left none the wiser tonight after a stream of mixed messages poured out of Downing Street, from advice on parties to kissing under mistletoe.
And the muddled advice caused further outrage among a public already furious at No10 for holding parties last year during lockdown.
Amid fears get-togethers could spark a surge of the latest Covid variant, Boris Johnson insisted no one should cancel yuletide bashes.
But hours earlier, Business Minister George Freeman suggested that larger firms should scrap Christmas parties.
The confusion grew further today as Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey warned “snogging under the mistletoe” should be avoided with strangers.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid said tonight: “People can snog who they wish.
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“It’s got nothing to do with the Government who you kiss. There’s guidance out there, just be cautious and enjoy yourselves.”
Mr Johnson, who today had his booster jab at St Thomas’ Hospital in South London, insisted “we want people to continue as they are”.
He added: “People should follow the guidance that we’ve set out and people shouldn’t be cancelling things, and there’s no need for that at all.”
But Mr Freeman cast doubt on works parties. He said: “Individual businesses must make judgments on what is appropriate internally. It depends on the nature of the business.
“For small businesses, four or five staff, who work together every day anyway, gathering to have a drink isn’t a big step up in risk. But some companies might normally bring hundreds of people in from around the world to a big party, and they may decide is that sensible given the pandemic and given where we are?”
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Adding to the lack of clarity, Mr Freeman insisted his Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy would not be having a “big” festive bash – just weeks after Secretary of State Kwasi Kwarteng said a party was already booked. He added: “Nobody would expect us to. My parliamentary team, I think we’ve agreed, probably given the new variant, we’ll get together on Zoom and toast each other.”
Mr Kwarteng had said on October 20: “We’ve got some arrangements in place, and I look forward to having a Christmas party as usual.”
A Business Department source today said “different teams do different things” and no single party for BEIS had been planned. It is understood Mr Kwarteng’s bash is still going ahead. The boss of pub group Young’s revealed some parties had already been cancelled due to the confusion.
Patrick Dardis said: “I think the messaging has been terribly confusing and inconsistent.
“One moment we’re told to avoid socialising and an hour later you have Sajid Javid saying the opposite.
“I think the messaging started as a complete overreaction and, unsurprisingly, it has concerned some people.”
Royal College of Nursing Council chairwoman Carol Popplestone said the “mixed messages” from ministers over Christmas plans could create “even more worry and confusion”.
Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds urged revellers to take Covid tests before parties.
But he added: “I don’t want to see people cancelling parties now.
“People need to live their lives and have some fun but also it has a huge impact on things like the hospitality industry.” A further seven cases of Omicron were confirmed today in England and three in Scotland, the UK Health Security Agency said. It brings the total to 43.
Up 60 people are believed to have been infected with the variant after a festive party in Norway, the world’s largest outbreak so far.
The mixed messages
Kissing under the mistletoe
Cabinet minister Therese Coffey said: “I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe.” Asked if there should be “just no snogging?”, she replied: “Well, not with people you don’t already know.” But Health Secretary Sajid Javid declared that people can “snog who they wish” this festive season.
Big Xmas parties
Minister George Freeman appeared to be freelancing when he suggested that big firms could cancel their festive bashes. He said: “Some companies might normally bring hundreds of people around the world to a big party. And they may decide this year ‘is that sensible?’” But No 10 said: “On Christmas parties, we don’t want people to cancel such events.”
Dr Jenny Harries, of the UK Health Security Agency, said “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to” over Christmas could keep the virus at bay. But Boris Johnson rejected the advice, adding: “On Christmas parties and nativity plays, we don’t want people to cancel events.”
Mr Javid tracked close to the official guidance on tests but that only went to show how vague it is. He said there wasn’t “any need to change” Covid rules but said he’d take a lateral flow test before going to a party. “If you are invited to a Christmas party, there’s quite a few people there, maybe you want to take an LFT before you go,” he said. “Go to the party but just be cautious.”