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Now don't invite more than FIVE guests to your Christmas party, says minister

A business minister today declared it would be 'sensible' for Christmas parties to be limited to 'four or five staff' or be axed completely as Britain's pubs, restaurants and clubs said the Government's muddled and confusing advice is going to devastate them.

Under Secretary of State for Science George Freeman also revealed that he was cancelling his department's bash this month, 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'.

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

Boris Johnson has insisted that there is no need to cancel this year and 'people should live their lives' because he is 'confident this Christmas will be better than the last'.

But yesterday 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 that people should avoid 'snogging under the mistletoe' over the holiday period.

And there was more chaos on Tuesday when UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief Dr Jenny 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. 

Plunging party plans into further chaos this morning George Freeman said larger companies might consider cancelling their staff Christmas parties. 

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'.

He added: 'I haven't been kissed under the mistletoe for years. I can tell you that my parliamentary team and I normally have a Christmas party. We've decided this year that it is probably sensible to do it by Zoom and wait for the spring. It won't be the best party in the world'. 

Despite Mr Freeman insisting 'the Government has set out clear guidance', there appears to be a 50-50 split between live and virtual Christmas parties. Some will wait until next year.

Richard Corrigan, Chef/patron of Corrigan's Mayfair, said: 'This was the Christmas that was supposed to save us. Clearly, that's not going to happen. We've had substantial enough corporate cancellations. It's shown on the bookings as well. It's not business as usual. By next April, there will be an absolute crisis in hospitality."

Russell Norman of Bruto told the Telegraph: 'If there's one thing I've noticed from our customers it is absolute confusion. People don't know if they should wear masks on arrival, as they move between the table and the bar, or to the loos. People are waiting for a solid, confident message. They are nervous and they want guidance’. 

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

Prime Minister Boris Johnson switches on the Christmas tree lights outside 10 Downing Street in London yesterday evening

Ms Nicholls said: ‘I think you are seeing once again a return of uncertainty. It’s quite clear the messaging over the weekend had a chilling effect on consumer confidence and we are starting to see a small number of cancellations.

‘It’s a trickle at the moment... but we need that message to be reinforced more strongly to put an end to the uncertainty and the threat of a stop-start to the economy again in the run up to Christmas.’

She added: ‘I think there’s also a sense of trepidation that their plans might be disrupted again, and so that irrespective of whether there are government controls imposed on the economy, that is having a cooling effect undoubtedly on hospitality.

‘We already saw that bookings were subdued this year compared to pre-pandemic levels. And this will clearly have a further adverse impact on our businesses.’

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, called for more clarity from government.

‘As we embark in earnest on this make-or-break festive season, clarity, consistency and proactive promotion of official advice is more important than ever,’ he said.

‘If that advice is to carry on with plans - with protective measures like hand sanitiser, screens, ventilation, masks and testing in place, which small firms have already been investing in these past 18 months - then that needs to be made crystal clear.’

The government has been accused of sending more mixed messages on socialising at Christmas after a minister last night said that people should avoid 'snogging under the mistletoe' over the holiday.

It comes after Boris Johnson yesterday contradicted deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries by saying that Christmas parties should go ahead, hours after she had said Britons should limit socialising over fears surrounding the new Omicron variant of cornavirus that has emerged. 

Thirty-two cases of the heavily-mutated variant have been found in the UK after it was first discovered in Africa, and it is feared that the strain may be able to evade the protection offered by vaccines and reinfect people who have previously been infected.   

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.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey then went further, and told ITV's Peston programme that 'we should all be trying to enjoy the Christmas ahead of us', adding: 'For what it's worth, I don't think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe.'

'(You) don't need to do things like that. But I think we should all be trying to enjoy the Christmas ahead of us and that's why we're working so hard to get the deployment of as many vaccines as possible.' Ms Coffey said kissing should be avoided with 'people you don't already know'.   

And it emerged last night that office Christmas parties were already being postponed by organisers who are afraid of the threat posed by Omicron.  Some employees have also been told to work from home amid fears over the new strain. Events company DesignMyNight has said that festive party cancellations jumped 15 per cent after the prime minister's first press conference on Saturday - with more after he spoke on Tuesday.

A string of hotels and restaurants revealed they faced losing thousands of pounds from lost bookings.  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson switches on the Christmas tree lights outside 10 Downing Street in London this evening

Ministers have been accused of scaring businesses into sending staff home through December and cancelling Christmas parties because of the Omicron strain of Covid-19 as SAGE scientists called for all UK arrivals to be forced to quarantine for five days and take a pre-departure PCR test even if they are fully vaccinated.

In rules now enshrined in law until March, Boris Johnson said that face coverings must now be worn in shops and on public transport to 'buy us time in the face of this new variant' while he pledged to 'throw everything' at the booster vaccination campaign and offer jabs to 40million over-18s by January 31 to tackle its spread.

But in the same Downing Street press conference on Tuesday evening the Prime Minister insisted another lockdown is 'extremely unlikely', urging people not to cancel their plans and to 'keep living your life'.

Critics say the Government's latest coronavirus rules on masks, blanket quarantine for Omicron contacts and gloomy language about the threat of the new variant is actually encouraging a semi-lockdown by stealth despite just 22 cases of the new strain detected so far.

While a World Health Organization official claimed today that most Omicron cases are 'mild' and there is no evidence the new variant has any impact on vaccine effectiveness against serious illness.

Amid accusations of mixed messages Sajid Javid also encouraged millions of people to be 'sensible' and 'cautious' about attending Christmas parties and to take a lateral flow test before going to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. There are also 'no guarantees' that there won't be a lockdown this Christmas, the Health Secretary warned.

Google 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. Ronan Harris, Vice President and MD for Google UK & Ireland, also told workers that face-to-face business meetings and events must be approved by a company director.

And despite Government guidance saying otherwise, many UK companies have scrambled to reinstate office restrictions including mask wearing in communal areas such as corridors and lifts. Insurance giant Aviva is introducing daily lateral flow tests for employees. EY is one of a number of big businesses asking staff to wear face coverings when not at their desks.

Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope has claimed the Prime Minister's regulations are 'part of a scaremongering propaganda campaign that is really designed to restrict or stop interaction between social animals. They're designed to suppress freedom of the individual and suppress social contact, and they're doing that through unreasonable fear-mongering.'

Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, said: 'I have received several emails from travel companies in my constituency whose potential bookings have dropped off a cliff because of the cost of PCR tests', adding encouragement back towards working from home will be devastating for businesses relying on office workers.

Anyone in close contact with an Omicron case must now self-isolate for ten days, even if doubled jabbed.

The new rule is thought to have left bosses worried that an outbreak at an event could put multiple staff in quarantine.

Hospitality chiefs and Tory MPs believe the mixed messages – Boris Johnson has said people should 'keep living your life' – was having a 'chilling effect on consumer confidence'.

Steve Baker, who spoke out against new coronavirus curbs in the Commons on Tuesday, said the public needed 'clarity, not Christmas killjoys'.

The Tory former minister added: 'People are sick and tired of this level of micromanagement of their lives. They want to be free and joyful, and they want to be free and joyful at Christmas – without the Christmas killjoys.'

World Health Organisation officials suggested yesterday that those diagnosed with Omicron so far mostly had no symptoms or only 'very, very mild' ones. 

None of the 32 confirmed cases in the UK has been hospitalised. However, ministers have already brought back face masks in shops and on public transport and toughened self-isolation rules. The booster rollout is also to be rapidly accelerated. 

In a string of other developments:

Mr Johnson exits 10 Downing Street as a children's choir sings during the ceremony to switch on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights in London on Wednesday

Ministers including Therese Coffey (pictured left) and Sajid Javid (right) were told not to be ' Christmas killjoys' on Wednesday night after festive events were cancelled because of the Omicron variant

Boris Johnson listens to a children's choir during the ceremony to switch on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights today

Public health chief Jenny Harries sparked a row on Tuesday by advising against 'unnecessary socialising' in the run-up to Christmas. The Prime Minister later contradicted her, telling people not to cancel festive events.

But last night it was claimed that staff working for NHS trusts, for magazines and even Age UK were among those to have had their Christmas parties cancelled. Many large employers are either telling employees to return to working from home or advancing Covid security measures in the office.

Kate Nicholls, of the trade body UK Hospitality, said: 'The messaging over the weekend had a chilling effect on consumer confidence and we are starting to see a small number of cancellations.'

Mike Cherry of the Federation of Small Businesses said: 'As we embark in earnest on this make-or-break festive season, clarity, consistency and proactive promotion of official advice is more important than ever.'

But Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Sage advisory group, told Times Radio that people should consider avoiding Christmas parties or at least wearing masks.

The Prime Minister pictured applauding after switching on the Christmas lights in Downing Street this evening

The Prime Minister stands in front of a crowd after switching on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights this evening

Mr Johnson is seen standing next to a children's choir and band after switching on the Christmas tree lights in Downing Street

Mr Johnson applauds and looks up at the Downing Street Christmas tree after turning on its lights on Wednesday

Revealed: Triple-vaccinated Israeli doctor who believes he caught Omicron Covid variant in London at conference attended by 1,250 people on 23 November - just as new strain was discovered in Africa

By Katie Weston and Martin Robinson, Chief Reporter for the MailOnline

A triple-vaccinated Israeli doctor has raised fears over the Omicron variant having been in the UK for weeks after saying he believes he caught the strain at a conference in London attended by 1,250 people on November 23.

Elad Maor, 45, travelled to the capital on November 19 and stayed at a hotel in Islington while attending the three-day convention at ExCeL London in Newham, east London, before returning to Israel. 

The father-of-three, who is a cardiologist at Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv, tested positive for the virus four days later, on November 27, and suffered mild symptoms including a sore throat, fever and muscle ache.

He took three PCR tests on November 20, 21 and 24 - all of which came back negative. After returning to work in Israel he later displayed symptoms and took a fourth PCR test which showed a positive result.

Dr Maor, who is now quarantining at home in Israel, appears to be certain that he picked up the variant while attending the conference, saying: 'I got the Omicron in London, for sure.' 

Elad Maor (pictured above), 45, travelled to London on November 19 and stayed at a hotel in Islington while attending the three-day convention at ExCeL London in Newham, east London, before returning to Israel

SAGE calls for compulsory five-day isolation and 'fit to fly' tests for all UK arrivals

All UK arrivals should be forced to quarantine for five days and take a pre-departure PCR test even if they are vaccinated, SAGE has advised.

The expert panel warned the current travel curbs were allowing 'significant' numbers of infected people to slip through the cracks.

Currently, fully vaccinated people coming into the UK need to take a PCR test within the first two days of returning to the UK.

There is nothing stopping them taking this as soon as they land and getting a result on the same day, releasing them from isolation in hours.

SAGE scientists said this might not give enough time for the virus to incubate. They also called for ministers to bring in day five and day eight tests.

Only unvaccinated people coming into the UK have to take 'fit to fly' tests before getting on a plane back to Britain.

SAGE's new advice was leaked from minutes of an emergency meeting about the new Omicron variant held on Monday.

More than 30 scientists attended the video conference on November 29, led by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Professor Chris Whitty.

He told The Guardian: 'That is interesting because that was 10 days ago in London – really, really early.'  

Dr Maor also believes he infected a 69-year-old fellow worker, who has since tested positive for the Omicron variant after returning from London.

Pointing to a delay between the time of infection and when the PCR turns positive, he added: 'The only reasonable explanation is that I got infected on the last day of the meeting – maybe at the airport, maybe at the meeting.'

The associate professor of cardiology at Tel Aviv University said he commuted to the conference via the tube and Docklands Light Railway (DLR) over the three-day period. 

Fauci said the individual had returned from South Africa on November 22 and tested positive a week later on November 29.

He or she was fully vaccinated, but had not received a booster, and is currently experiencing mild symptoms. 

Meanwhile in the UK, in rules now enshrined in law until March, Boris Johnson said that face coverings must be worn in shops and on public transport to 'buy us time in the face of this new variant'.

The Prime Minister also pledged to 'throw everything' at the booster vaccination campaign and offer jabs to 40million over-18s by January 31 to tackle its spread.

But in the same Downing Street press conference last night Mr Johnson insisted another lockdown is 'extremely unlikely', urging people not to cancel their plans and to 'keep living your life'.

Critics say the Government's latest coronavirus rules on masks, blanket quarantine for Omicron contacts and gloomy language about the threat of the new variant is actually encouraging a semi-lockdown by stealth despite just 22 cases of the new strain detected so far. 

Deaths, infections and hospitalisations were all down in the UK on Tuesday while a World Health Organization official claimed on Wednesday that most Omicron cases are 'mild' and there is no evidence the new variant has any impact on vaccine effectiveness against serious illness. 

Sir Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson clashed over new Covid rules at PMQs this lunchtime as the PM faced a revolt from Tory MPs

The Government has insisted the rules will be reviewed in three weeks' time but Tory MPs, including former chief whip Mark Harper, have expressed concerns about the expiry date

Omicron Covid appeared in Nigeria in OCTOBER - weeks before South Africa announced discovery of variant, new tests reveal

Nigeria has confirmed its first cases of Omicron Covid and revealed it was in the country in October, weeks before South Africa alerted the world to its existence.

Three Omicron cases were detected in travellers who arrived in Nigeria from South Africa within the past week, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control said today.

But Dr Ifedayo Adetifa, the agency's director, added that retroactive testing of Covid samples collected in recent weeks had identified another case of Omicron dating back to October.

It means that Omicron - designated a 'variant of concern' by the WHO and believed to be the most-infectious form of Covid yet found - was likely circulating undetected for weeks before first being identified. 

The discovery comes just a day after after Dutch health authorities said they also found a case of Omicron in a sample collected on November 19, four days before South Africa sounded the alarm.

If confirmed, the Nigerian case would be the earliest-known Omicron infection - rewriting the timeline of the variant's origins.

However, it does not necessarily mean the variant emerged in Nigeria because it is unclear how or why the sample was collected. Dr Adetifa did not give details.

Nigeria - in western Africa - extensively tests travellers into and out of the country, meaning it is possible the case was imported from overseas.

Until now, it had been assumed the variant first emerged in southern Africa where it was detected on November 23 by South African scientists in a sample collected from Botswana on November 9.

Nigeria's three recent cases were all in travellers from South Africa who had taken a Day 2 PCR test, with samples collected within the last week.

It is unclear when exactly the samples were collected. Nigeria said efforts are underway to track and isolate the individuals.