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Google urges staff to cancel face-to-face meetings until 2022 due to Omicron fears 

Google is understood to have urged staff to cancel in-person social gatherings until 2022 amid a wave of festive cancellations over Omicron fears.

Google has emailed its British staff urging them to 'move any planned in-person social gatherings until 2022' and limit them to no more than 15 people, The Times reported.

Ronan Harris, Vice President and MD for Google UK and Ireland, reportedly told staff that face-to-face events and business meetings have to be given the go-ahead by a company director as fears increase over the Omicron variant.

MailOnline has contacted Google for further comment.

The government's muddled messaging has led to a wave of festive cancellations, with major companies including NatWest, Aviva and Deutsche Bank saying all staff would have to take a lateral flow test before attending their Christmas parties.

Ronan Harris (pictured), Vice President and MD for Google UK and Ireland, told staff that face-to-face events and business meetings have to be given the go-ahead by a company director

Legal & General decided in October that Christmas celebrations should be kept small and team-based; Microsoft is holding a large 'virtual' party'; while Lloyd's decided to hold its annual staff bash in the summer.

More than half (52 per cent) of UK workplaces have chosen not to hold a Christmas office party, according to a poll of 2,000 staff by Covid testing firm Prenetics. 

But for the businesses shelling out millions on Christmas parties for staff, they are unlikely to get a full refund unless Boris Johnson changes the formal guidance. 

Earlier today, George Freeman, the Under Secretary of State for Science, plunged Christmas party plans for millions of Britons into chaos after declaring it would be 'sensible' to limit them to 'four or five staff' or axe them completely.

He said: 'It slightly depends on the nature of the business. For many small businesses, four or five staff, who are working 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, this year, is that sensible given the pandemic and given where we are? In the end, I think business people know how to make those decisions'.  

To party or not to party this Christmas? What Britain's biggest employers plan to do about this year's staff festive bash

There is growing uncertainty about the Omicron variant, which is fuelling a meteoric rise in cases in South Africa. Nationally, cases there soared to 11,535 today marking a 370 per cent rise in a week, and up a third on around 8,500 yesterday

He also revealed that he was cancelling his own department's bash, changing it to drinks on Zoom instead amid concerns over the new Omicron variant, admitting: 'It won't be the best party in the world.'

But just hours later, the Prime Minister received his booster shot live on TV before telling Sky News there was no reason for Britons to change their plans.

'People should follow the guidance we've set out,' he said. 'They shouldn't be cancelling things, there is no need for that at all and it isn't what we're saying. The most important thing you can do in all circumstances is to have your booster when it becomes available.'

George Freeman is the fifth minister to give different advice about festive parties with half of businesses cancelling this year costing UK hospitality 'billions'.

Sajid Javid was the first to spark anger from hospitality bosses after he urged partygoers to take a Covid test. 

The Health Secretary even suggested they should consider wearing a face mask. 

Yet one of his health ministers, Gillian Keegan, urged: 'Continue with your Christmas plans, continue with your nativity plays and your Christmas parties.'

Last night Therese Coffey sent more mixed messages on socialising after she warned people to avoid 'snogging under the mistletoe' over the holiday period.

And there was more chaos on Tuesday when Dr Harries said people should limit socialising in December. This sparked suspicion among Tory MPs that she was being set up as the fall guy by ministers who are too scared to admit further restrictions are likely. 

Mr Johnson's intervention on Sky News will be seen as an attempt to bring clarity to his government's position, after hospitality bosses complained muddled and confusing advice from ministers had led to a 'catastrophic' 48 hours for the industry. 

Ministers and Boris Johnson's top scientists have all given different advice about whether to hold a Christmas party

Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the first person to spot the new variant in a patient, said her patients infected with Omicron reported different and much milder symptoms, including tiredness, muscle aches, a sore head and a dry cough. But none reported the tell-tale symptoms of a loss of smell or taste or breathing difficulties 

There is growing uncertainty about the Omicron variant, which is fuelling a meteoric rise in cases in South Africa. Nationally, cases there soared to 11,535 today marking a 370 per cent rise in a week, and up a third on around 8,500 yesterday. 

It has become the dominant strain in the country in just a week since it was officially discovered, making up 75 per cent of sequenced samples now after outpacing Delta at a ferocious pace. 

But public health experts in South Africa and the World Health Organization have insisted that cases are only mild and that vaccines should still be highly effective against the strain, despite a distinct lack of data. 

What are major companies doing for this year's Christmas parties? 

NatWest: Employees should to take a lateral flow test before attending team parties, but attendance is a personal choice.

Financial Conduct Authority: No centralised Christmas parties – it is up to each team to decide whether they wish to organise a small gathering, and colleagues can make a personal choice on whether they want to attend. 

Microsoft: One large 'virtual' party, but some smaller teams are having in person events, which was always the plan. There was never a scheduled in-person event. 

HSBC: Bosses have not asked staff to cancel Christmas events, although expect some may wish to have virtual or split team events for business continuity. 

Legal & General: Bosses decided in October that Christmas celebrations should be kept small and team-based due to Covid-19 

Deutsche Bank: The firm hasn't held big Christmas parties 'for some time', but individual teams have them. There is a rule that staff need to take lateral flow test before or cannot go.

Google: Company has emailed UK staff urging them to 'move any planned in-person social gatherings until 2022' and limiting them to no more than 15 people

BBC: Holding off from staff Christmas parties

JP Morgan: Has not issued Christmas party guidance so far.  

Lloyd's: Bosses decided to hold the annual staff party in the summer instead of having a Christmas one, to enjoy the warmer weather and following staff feedback 

Aviva: Staff should take a Covid test on the morning of their Christmas parties, which are also within teams - and should 'wear face coverings as appropriate'.

Deloitte: Staff can make a personal choice on whether to attend, with parties taking place within teams. 

EY: Christmas parties within teams are still taking place.

PricewaterhouseCoopers: Firm-wide event is not planned, but smaller parties are taking place. 

KPMG: Christmas parties will take place within teams.

NHS Providers: Staff at some NHS trusts have been told 'not to mix in big groups' ahead of Christmas. 

At a WHO press conference today, officials said that reports on the ground suggest the variant is much better at re-infecting people than Delta, which is why it's spreading so fast in Guateng province where up to 80 per cent have natural immunity. By contrast, only a quarter of South Africans are vaccinated against Covid. 

Yet despite the optimism, hospital admissions already appear to be on the rise in South African with today's 274 up 180 per cent on last Thursday, even though they are rising from a low base. 

It came as a Christmas party at the Louise seafood restaurant in Oslo saw up to 60 people contract Omicron in what is likely to be the world's biggest outbreak of the new strain so far. 

Norwegian epidemiologists have ruled out the possibility the infections are Delta variant cases and said there was a 'high probability' it was Omicron because at least one of the Scatec employees had recently returned from the renewable energy company's South African office in Cape Town.

And in another twist, Scatec has insisted only vaccinated employees were allowed to attend the Christmas party last Friday and they needed a negative test result beforehand.  

One of the company's super-spreaders was also drinking in an Irish bar in the city the following night, raising fears more could be infected.

More than 71 per cent of Norway's population are fully vaccinated, higher than the 69 per cent of Brits and 59 per cent of Americans who have had both jabs.

It is still not known if Omicron is faster spreading or more deadly than the dominant Delta strain with scientists insisting they need three weeks to study the data, leaving bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants and millions of Britons in limbo. 

Urging people not to call off festive celebrations, UK Hospitality chief Kate Nicholls told MailOnline: 'Individual businesses will have their own booking policies in place and a larger number than usual have been asking for deposits for larger group bookings this year.

'However, others won't have any contingencies in place and all will incur significant costs for last-minute cancellations.

'It should be remembered that operators have invested heavily to ensure the safety of staff and customers, focusing on better ventilation, hygiene and sanitation, measures which SAGE recommends are the most effective ways to control infection and as a result hospitality venues are safer places in which to socialise than at home.'

Meanwhile, Sacha Lord, the night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, said the advice from UK Health Security Agency head Dr Jenny Harries on Tuesday that people should not socialise unnecessarily had been 'catastrophic for the industry'.  

He told Sky News: 'In the last 48 hours it's been catastrophic for the industry. 

'We've seen office parties cancelled, flights are cancelling, it's been a huge domino effect. 

'This isn't just restaurants, this is the whole ecology around it - it's the supply chain, it's the taxis, it's hotel rooms, it's everything that goes with it. 

'December is a time when people can have a good time - they can take up to 25 per cent of their annual turnover in December. 

'Sadly, at the eleventh hour, it's been snatched away from them.'