Britons have been advised not to attend football matches in stadiums and to “prioritise” social events “that really matter to them” amid the sharp rise in COVID cases.
Speaking at a Downing Street news conference, both Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and Dr Nikki Kanani, medical director of primary care for NHS England, suggested people limit their interactions with others in the run-up to Christmas.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson also told people to “think carefully” before attending social events.
The stark warnings from medical experts over the impact of the Omicron variant in the UK – and their guidance for people to limit their mixing with others – prompted further calls for government support for hospitality businesses in the coming weeks, as many report an uptick in booking cancellations.
The Omicron variant has forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to introduce his “Plan B” for dealing with coronavirus pressures on the NHS this winter.
This includes an extension of mandatory face mask wearing to most indoor venues and the use of COVID passes – to demonstrate vaccination status or a negative test result – being made compulsory for nightclubs and large events.
But the government has not told any businesses to close or imposed any capacity restrictions on sporting events.
However, despite there being no legal limits on crowd sizes, Dr Kanani advised supporters to stay away from stadiums – other than those that are being used as COVID vaccination sites – as the Omicron variant spreads across the UK.
“My advice would be, if you’re going to go to a stadium at the weekend, make it one where you can get your vaccine or help out to give a vaccine, rather than going to watch a match,” she said.
Meanwhile, Prof Whitty said it was “very sensible” for people to make choices between which social events they attend, and which they don’t.
“I think what most people are doing – and I think this seems very sensible – is prioritising the social interactions that mean a lot to them and, to prioritise those ones, de-prioritising ones that mean much less to them,” he said.
He added: “I really think people should be prioritising those things and only those things that really matter to them.
“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 do matter to them obviously go up.
“I don’t think you need to be a doctor to think that. I think that’s what most people are very sensibly calculating and that seems to me a sensible approach, personally.
“The point I’m making is don’t mix with people you don’t have to for either work or for your family things that really matter to you would be my general advice to people in this kind of situation.
“But people have to make their own choices.”
Is Christmas cancelled? Analysis by Jon Craig, chief political correspondent
Anyone looking forward to a cheerful Christmas with family and friends will have been left thoroughly depressed by Boris Johnsons latest news conference.
Predictably, it wasn’t the PM who was the merchant of doom, but England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and the top NHS England medic Dr Nikki Kanani.
The stark message – though admittedly it was advice rather than an instruction or a new rule – was that we should cut back on Christmas: “Don’t mix with people you don’t have to,” said Prof Whitty.
What does that mean? Don’t see granny and grandpa? Don’t go to the pub? Don’t go to a restaurant? Certainly don’t go to Christmas parties. That’s what is sounds like.
Dr Kanani went further. She said if we’re going to go to a football stadium this weekend, go to get a jab at one of the grounds doing vaccinations rather than watch a match.
The PM added: “Think carefully before you go.” Some will say he’s bottled out of imposing more rules – or a Plan C – after the humiliation of the Tory rebellion over Plan B.
The advice is a massive and potentially business-crippling blow at the height of the Christmas season to pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, concert halls and those football clubs struggling to cope with the pandemic.
The PM insists he’s not cancelling events, closing hospitality or cancelling Christmas parties. But many people fear that a normal Christmas has effectively been cancelled.
Asked about his own Christmas plans, Mr Johnson claimed: “I follow the rules.” A lot of his critics – and people reading about Downing Street parties and noting his casual approach to mask wearing – will have guffawed at that.
What we saw here was a weak PM too scared to bring in new rules, relying on his medics – especially the increasingly powerful and influential Prof Whitty, it seems – to tell the public to cut back on Christmas.
The prime minister said he would “agree totally” with Prof Whitty about “the response that we’re already seeing from everybody – our general instinct to be more cautious”.
But he added he would “stick” to his previous statements that “this Christmas would be considerably better than last Christmas”.
“We’re not cancelling events, we’re not closing hospitality, we’re not cancelling peoples’ parties or their ability to mix,” Mr Johnson said.
“What we are saying is, ‘think carefully before you go, what kind of an 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… make sure there is ventilation, wear a mask on transport’.
“We’re in a different environment, thanks to the boosters, from where we were last year.
“But we’ve got to be cautious and think about it while we wait for the benefits of the boosters really to kick in.”
Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on COVID-19, later told Sky News that it “makes sense to do everything we can to minimise contact to what is absolutely essential”.
“Emotional connections are essential, and I don’t want anybody to think I’m trying to stop that, but I am saying only do what is vital,” he added.
After this week suffering the largest Conservative rebellion in the House of Commons since the 2019 general election, the prime minister faced further angst from among his Tory MPs following the advice for Britons to cut down on social mixing.
Newton Abbot MP Anne Marie Morris posted on Twitter: “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 HM Treasury.”