Dr Jenny Harries warned home working was a ‘key’ tool if there’s a major surge of the Covid Omicron variant – and said people could try ‘not socialising when we don’t particularly need to’
Downing Street today rejected suggestions by an expert advisor that people could cut down on socialising this Christmas.
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said working from home was a “key” element of controlling a possible surge in future.
She also suggested people could try “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to” over Christmas.
Asked whether people should be told to work from home in England, as is happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, she said: “We’ve seen that not everybody has gone back to work and I’d like to think of it more in a general way.
“Which is if we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.
“So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs which, of course, people will now be able to have at a three-month interval from their primary course.”
But No10 insisted she did not raise home-working at the Tory Cabinet, which she briefed this morning.
And No10 firmly distanced Boris Johnson from her comments on socialising saying: “Clearly it’s down to individuals to decide what they think is the right approach”.
Asked if Dr Harries’ view that people should try to avoid socialising when they do not need to over the Christmas period was shared by the Prime Minister, the PM’s spokesman told reporters: “No. Our advice to the public is as set out at the weekend.
“We have put advice out on face coverings and on inward travellers and those who are identified as having the Omicron variant of coronavirus. Beyond that we haven’t set out any further guidance to the public.”
Asked if people should follow what he was saying or what Dr Harries was saying, the spokesman said: “The public should follow the guidance as set out by the Government and indeed the Prime Minister at the weekend.”
Asked why Mr Johnson and Dr Harries were contradicting each other, the PM’s spokesman claimed: “Clearly a number of hypothetical situations were put to her and she was providing the response.”
Meanwhile a top Tory today said the new Omicron variant will “hopefully not” ruin Christmas.
New warnings emerged after laws took effect at 4am, making face masks mandatory in many indoor spaces and forcing all international arrivals to take a Day 2 PCR test.
Boris Johnson will give a press conference today – and will set out more details of plans to offer booster vaccines to all over-18s, three months after their second dose.
But so far he has not enacted other parts of his winter ‘Plan B’, such as encouraging people to work from home. That is despite Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon urging “people to work from home if possible”.
It means an anxious wait for Brits to find out whether more measures could be enacted when the current restrictions are reviewed on December 20 – days before Christmas.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman insisted England is not yet in Plan B – despite masks being a part of that plan.
Health Minister Gillian Keegan stopped short of guaranteeing there will not be new restrictions over Christmas.
Her boss Sajid Javid last night said the restrictions won’t stay “for a day longer than necessary” – if Omicron turns out to be no more dangerous than Delta.
But he did not say what would happen if it does, for example, resist the vaccine.
Asked if Christmas would be “ruined”, Ms Keegan replied: “Hopefully not”.
She told Sky News: “Let’s be proportional and balanced, as we’re trying to be. We have five cases today. That will go up I’m pretty sure, but what we’re trying to do is really clamp down on that as much as possible.”
Ms Keegan added the chances of having to isolate over Christmas were “pretty low”.
She said: “Of course Christmas is on track, and actually what everybody wants for Christmas is if you haven’t had your first jab, come and get it, if you haven’t had your second jab, come and get it, and if you haven’t had your booster, come and get it when you’re asked.”
She urged parents to keep attending nativity plays, telling LBC: “I think we’ve said go about your plans.
“I mean, obviously wear a mask, be cautious, you know, all the things that people usually put in place, to be honest.
“I think most people have been sensible all along, but we’re not saying to people cancel your plans and I’m sure it would be lovely to go to a nativity play right now.”
Dr Harries told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) “has shown that if we have significant surges in Covid cases, then actually working from home is one of the key ones to implement and that’s why it is in Plan B.
“But it’s probably worth just thinking through at the moment; although I’m sure we will have more cases announced, we do only have five confirmed cases (of the new Omicron variant in England) and 10 highly probable at the moment.
“So it’s a very early stage for this, I think, but certainly, if we see surges, then working from home will be a good thing to do.”
Asked later by BBC Breakfast whether the UK will see a return to work from home guidance, she said: “The whole point about the booster programme and the introduction of mandatory face mask-wearing in enclosed public spaces is exactly to try and avoid that because we’ve made huge progress, we have great defences and, in the background, the dominant strain in the UK at the moment is very definitely Delta.
“So these vaccines will help that, it will keep serious infection, serious disease and hospitalisations at bay, but we do need this time to try and understand the new variant, and we would much prefer that we have that precautionary approach and then take appropriate actions.”