British government scientists have warned that the Omicron variant could lead to a large wave of infections as new coronavirus cases topped 50,000 for the second day running. However Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden said he was pressing ahead with a staff Christmas party, urging others to do the same.
“I would say to people, keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans,” he told Times Radio.
The Scientific Group for Emergencies (Sage), which advises the government on coronavirus, said it was likely that the Omicron variant was highly likely to escape the immunity offered by vaccinations, although it was unclear by how much.
“Even if there continues to be good protection against severe disease for individuals from vaccination (including boosters), any significant reduction in protection against infection could still result in a very large wave of infections. This would in turn lead to potentially high numbers of hospitalisations even with protection against severe disease being less affected,” the group warned, according to minutes of a meeting last Monday.
"The size of this wave remains highly uncertain but may be of a scale that requires very stringent response measures to avoid unsustainable pressure on the NHS. If vaccine efficacy is substantially reduced then a wave of severe disease should be expected."
The Conservatives won a byelection in Old Bexley and Sidcup on Thursday caused by the death of former Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire. But the party's majority and vote share fell sharply amid controversy over parties held in 10 Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas last year when the country was under lockdown.
Government ministers have given conflicting advice about the wisdom of holding Christmas parties this year, with work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey warning against "snogging" under the mistletoe while chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak said the choice of whom to kiss was nothing to do with the government.
Business minister George Freeman said his department would not have a big Christmas party and that his parliamentary team would "get together on Zoom" instead.
However, Conservative backbencher Steve Brine said the government's mixed messages were encouraging what he called "the cancel Christmas brigade".
“You have ministers out on the airwaves, flattered that they’re being asked their opinion, proffering their thoughts on kissing under the mistletoe or on Christmas parties, deviating from the government line,” he said in an interview to be broadcast on the BBC’s Week in Westminster on Saturday.
“What we’ve got now is with some the zero-Covid tendency has gained new traction and encouragement. Basically we gave them an inch and they’ve taken a mile. We need to learn to live with Covid. We are millions of miles away from that right now.”
MPs voted this week to restore mandatory face coverings in indoor settings such as shops and theatres, and to allow the government to require people arriving in the country to self-isolate until they test negative for coronavirus. But more than 30 Conservative MPs rebelled by voting against the measures or abstaining, and the government fears it will have to rely on Labour votes if it wants to bring back further restrictions.