Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden today insisted people should ‘keep calm and carry on’ with their Christmas plans and parties despite Omicron – but Britain’s pubs, hotels, restaurants and clubs already set to lose billions say ‘the damage is already done’ as the cancellations continue.
Mr Dowden insisted the Government had been clear in its guidelines – despite a plethora of ministers offering contradictory and confusing advice – and said: ‘There’s a Conservative Party Christmas party still planned’. He also said that providing Britons abide by mask rules on public transport and in shops, they can kiss anyone they like under the mistletoe.
Trade body UK Hospitality said that firms are reporting that at least one in ten Christmas parties has been cancelled in recent days.
It comes as Government departments have been cancelling their Christmas parties or holding them online – with the Department for Education calling off its annual talent show which was due to take place in person and be streamed for those working from home.
Meanwhile the Office of Rail and Road said its festive event would be online only via Microsoft teams. And The Charity Commission is also expecting to hold its Christmas party online. Yesterday, science minister George Freeman said: ‘I can tell you the department of business won’t be having a big Christmas party this year – nobody would expect us to’.
Boris Johnson has urged businesses not to cancel office parties and proceed with caution when his ministers either told people to cancel, wear masks, take tests and not snog strangers – none of which are in the Government guidelines.
Mr Dowden told Sky News: ‘The message to people, I think, is fairly straightforward – which is keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans. We’ve put the necessary restrictions in place, but beyond that keep calm and carry on.
‘I understand that people have concerns around the new variant. That’s why the Government has taken the sort of measures that we’ve already outlined … we think those are sufficient at this stage and, beyond that, people should continue with their plans as intended.’
Meanwhile a government scientific advisor today warned that ‘personally, I wouldn’t feel safe going to a party at the moment’. Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of SAGE subgroup the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said ‘the chances of getting infected were too high’.
Amid confusion about what to do, many of Britain’s biggest employers including the NHS, banks and tech firms have axed festive bashes completely or taken them online. It is now said to be a 50/50 split.
Tim Rumney, the chief executive of hotel group Best Western GB, said: ‘We have had a week of mixed messages about whether people should socialise or cancel parties or not and small, independent businesses like our hotels are on the frontline feeling the effects of that indecision.
‘My fear is the damage is already done, and this festive period will need to be written off like last Christmas, which will be devastating for many small businesses who were hoping for a strong end to 2021, after the last two years of Covid interrupted trading.’
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.
Today Tine Ravlo, assistant district physician in Frogner district, said none of the victims are seriously ill – and have ‘mild’ symptoms such as a runny nose, cough and sore throat. It will raise hopes Omicron is not more dangerous than Delta.
Britons are strongly opposed to the government ramping up Covid restrictions in response to the Omicron variant, with more than two thirds of the public against the closure of pubs and restaurants
Mr Dowden encouraged people to get their booster jabs if they are concerned about the virus.
He said: ‘The one thing that everyone can do if they are worried is to make sure that they take that booster, that they make sure that they top up their immunity.
‘Provided people take the booster when they get the call, provided they abide by the existing rules, as updated in light of the new variant, I think people can continue with their Christmas plans and I’d encourage people to do so.’
Britons are strongly opposed to the government ramping up Covid restrictions in response to the Omicron variant, with more than two thirds of the public against the closure of pubs and restaurants.
Festive fun on hold across the country
Amid conflicting advice, employers have lost confidence and there is now a flood of Christmas party cancellations.
University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust
All staff parties have been postponed until next year.
Newham Clinical Commissioning Group
GP practices have called off their celebrations.
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust
Small department parties can go ahead but some, including paediatrics, have cancelled.
Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust
No trust-wide guidance but some providers reporting cancelled parties.
Hampshire GP practices
No Trust guidance but some surgeries are cancelling.
York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Scaled back. No large parties – but individual teams can decide whether to go ahead.
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust
No change. Parties on departmental basis, as normal.
Many departments, including news, have cancelled office parties, claim staff.
The Government’s departments
Scaled back. There will be no department-wide parties and it is down to individual teams to decide how to celebrate.
The Metropolitan Police
Scaled back. There are no plans for an office-wide Christmas party this year. Down to individual departments.
Scaled back. No party was planned but smaller gatherings are expected, with lateral flow tests encouraged.
Cancelled. All gatherings have been moved to next year and limited to 15 people.
Cancelled and replaced with a ‘virtual party’
Universities and charities
University College London
All parties have been cancelled or postponed.
Face-to-face Christmas parties have been called off.
Cancelled. Bosses held their Christmas party in the summer instead in anticipation of winter chaos.
Scaled back. Staff have not been asked to cancel their team Christmas parties but some have opted for virtual events instead.
Additional measures. Individual teams organising parties as usual with lateral flow tests recommended.
Finance and insurance
Scaled back. Smaller teams can hold parties.
Scaled back. Smaller group celebrations and face coverings must be worn.
Scaled back. Plans for smaller parties subject to consent of department heads.
Scaled back. Parties will be on a group by group basis.
Slaughter and May
Scaled back. Smaller team parties only, which was decided before Omicron.
Scaled back. Lateral flow tests before smaller, team-based parties.
There has been 48 hours of mixed messaging from his ministers which has led to a barrage of called-off festive celebrations.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Britons to ‘snog who they wish’ but other members of the cabinet offered contradictory advice.
Despite the confusion, a YouGov survey has found that 64 per cent Britons are against any stay-at-home orders, while 61 per cent said they don’t want draconian restrictions on welcoming guests into their homes.
But the survey of 1,402 adults across England, carried out on Tuesday and Wednesday after a mask mandate was reintroduced in shops and on public transport, found support for some further steps to stop the spread of infection.
More people backed closing nightclubs rather than keeping them open (55 per cent to 34 per cent), while a very slim majority (46 to 45 per cent) said large sports and entertainment events should not go ahead.
And people seemed to be happy to keep their distance from each other, with 60 per cent supporting remaining two metres apart from those outside their household and 69 per cent in favour of social distancing in pubs and restaurants.
YouGov said: ‘The reintroduction of tougher Covid 19 restrictions is mostly unpopular among the English public, although support has increased slightly since July.
‘Since Tuesday, England has been placed under tighter restrictions in an attempt to control the spread of the highly infectious new Omicron variant of the virus. For now, however, England is unwilling to return to full lockdown rules.’
The findings come after 24 hours of confusing and contradictory statements from Westminster.
Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told ITV’s Peston show ‘I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe’ as the nation battled the new variant.
But Mr Javid then contradicted her, saying: ‘People can snog who they wish.
‘I’ll certainly be kissing my wife under the mistletoe, it’s a Javid family tradition and it’s got nothing to do with the Government who you kiss.’
Mr Johnson received his booster shot live on TV before telling Sky News there was no reason for Britons to change their Christmas 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.’
Earlier Mr Johnson’s business minister plunged Christmas party plans for millions of Britons into further chaos after declaring it would be ‘sensible’ to limit them to ‘four or five staff’ or axe them completely.
George Freeman, the Under Secretary of State for Science, 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 hours later No 10 urged firms not to cancel Christmas parties and said people are free to kiss who they like after another minister advised against ‘snogging under the mistletoe’ over the holiday period.
Mr Johnson’s latest 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.
But 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.
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.
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
The Christmas tree from Norway is illuminated in Trafalgar Square amid uncertainty over Christmas with fears of Covid restrictions
And 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.
Last year the Government introduced schemes including business grants and furlough for businesses forced to close during the pandemic. These programmes remained in place for the subsequent 18 months and proved to be enormously costly but proved a lifeline for businesses.
The hospitality industry erupted with fury at the move, with some branding it a lockdown by stealth and bosses warning a wave of cancellations that have hit them could cost the sector ‘billions’.
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.’
George Freeman is the fifth minister to give different advice about festive parties with half of businesses cancelling this year costing UK hospitality ‘billions’. His boss 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’.
Plunging party plans into further chaos this morning, Mr 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.
To party or not to party this Christmas? What Britain’s biggest employers plan to do about this year’s staff festive bash
When will they make their minds up? Ministers and their muddled advice on Christmas parties
Prime Minister Boris Johnson: Don’t cancel your Christmas party
‘People should follow the guidance we’ve set out. 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.’
‘People should live their lives. We are not changing the guidance on how you should basically be living your life… Providing people continue to be cautious and sensible, we think that’s the right approach.
‘We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout and I think I’m going to stick with the formula I’ve used before, which is I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas.’
Health Minister Gillian Keegan: Continue with your festive plans
‘Continue with your Christmas plans, continue with your nativity plays and your Christmas parties
‘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.’
Health Secretary Sajid Javid: Take a test, wear a mask (but then take it off and snog who you like)
‘If you are invited to a Christmas party, there’s quite a few people there, maybe you want to take an LFT (lateral flow test) test before you go. Go to the party, but just be cautious.’
Asked if he would wear a mask if he was at a party, Mr Javid said: ‘It depends if I am walking around or sitting down. It depends if I’m eating. People just need to make a decision based on the guidance.
Later he said: ‘People can snog who they wish. I’ll certainly be kissing my wife under the mistletoe, it’s a Javid family tradition and it’s got nothing to do with the Government who you kiss.’
Therese Coffey: No snogging under the mistletoe
‘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.’
‘Christmas we should continue to plan for and enjoy.’ But she said snogging should be avoided with ‘people you don’t already know’.
George Freeman: Don’t invite more than five people
Individual businesses, in the end, have to make judgments on what is appropriate internally.
‘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. The Government has set out clear guidance.’
Dr Jenny Harries
UK Health Security Agency head Dr Jenny Harries said on Tuesday that people should not socialise unnecessarily. Boris Johnson contradicted her by saying that Christmas parties should go ahead
A Christmas party in Norway at the exclusive Louise Restaurant & Bar in Oslo has left between 50 and 60 people infected with Covid-19, suspected to be the new super-mutant Omicron variant
Norway has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. The Oslo outbreak will raise fears Omicron can dodge vaccines
The number of daily cases per million people is rising sharply in Norway – but it is still below the UK’s level
Ministers and Boris Johnson’s top scientists have all given different advice about whether to hold a Christmas party
Just how heavily Omicron has mutated from both the original Covid virus and other variants such as Delta has been laid bare by new images
Only a handful of people gathered for the illumination of the Norwegian Christmas tree, an annual tradition which usually draws huge crowds of people watching the switching on of the gift from Norway to thank Britain for their help during WWII
The Christmas tree is an annual gift from the city of Oslo to the people of Britain as a token of thanks for British support during their years of occupation in World War II and usually draws a large crowd when it is turned on in Trafalgar Square each year
Pictured: The Mayor of Oslo Marianne Borgen speaks to London Mayor Sadiq Khan during the annual Norwegian Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Trafalgar Square, in London, earlier today which drew only small crowds for the annual ceremony
Omicron becomes dominant in South Africa in just one WEEK: Health chief reveals 75% of cases are now super-mutant variant
The super-mutant Omicron variant has outpaced Delta to become the dominant strain in South Africa in just a week, it was revealed today after infections soared sixfold in the days after its discovery.
A public health official based in Johannesburg revealed that the highly evolved virus was now behind 75 per cent of cases nationally just eight days after South Africa first raised the alarm about the strain on November 24.
Professor Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at South Africa’s national health agency, told an emergency World Health Organization conference today it ‘does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country’.
Five of the country’s nine provinces have confirmed Omicron cases and officials expect its prevalence to be high in the remaining four areas where positive samples have not yet been sequenced.
There have only been 183 confirmed cases of the strain because only a handful of positive samples are analysed for variants. South Africa is currently recording 8,561 cases per day, which have soared sixfold (571 per cent) in a week from 1,275.
Meanwhile, hospitalisations have more than doubled in the last two weeks, from an average of 86 per day to 184. Despite reports that the strain causes mild illness, the virus was initially circulating among young people — who are not usually hospitalised with the virus.
Professor von Gottberg said scientists are worried about the number of Omicron cases that are being spotted among people who have previously had Covid, compared to the reinfection rate during the Beta and Delta-fuelled waves.
But she said the virus may be no more transmissible than Delta, the illness it causes is thought to be ‘less severe’ and vaccines should protect against illness.
‘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’.
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 – which kicked off the row – 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.’
He also said this week: ‘If the hospitality sector is not supported and closes in December, it will be the final nail in the coffin for many of our beloved venues.’
Meanwhile, there were underwhelming crowds in Trafalgar Square for the switching on of the Christmas Tree lights.
The annual tradition is usually a popular event when the Norwegian Christmas tree is illuminated during a special lighting ceremony in London.
The Christmas tree is an annual gift from the city of Oslo to the people of Britain as a token of thanks for British support during their years of occupation in World War II.
But there were only a handful of families gathered for the event this year as mixed messages over Covid restrictions continue to be echoed by ministers.
It comes as major companies including NatWest, Aviva and Deutsche Bank said all staff would have to take a lateral flow test before attending their Christmas parties. The trio and several other big firms also said events would be limited to teams rather than full-staff.
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.
The row over Christmas parties and the new Covid-19 regulations, enshrined in law until March, came as:
- Germany will lock down its unvaccinated citizens while parliament debates making jabs mandatory, Angela Merkel said as she threw her weight behind the move;
- The super-mutant Omicron variant has outpaced Delta to become the dominant strain in South Africa in just a week, it was revealed today after infections soared sixfold in the days after its discovery;
- British ministers bought 114million more doses of coronavirus vaccines that can be tweaked to protect against new variants with fourth or even fifth boosters planned until 2023;
- No 10 insists its staff ‘followed the guidance’ amid reports that a Christmas party contravening social distancing rules was held there last December;
- Businesses allow staff to work from home and bring back mask wearing and temperature checks in the office;
- Shamed Matt Hancock apologises again in first TV interview since losing his job and wife over office affair and declares: ‘I’ve blown up every part of my life’;
Shocking graphic of Omicron’s 32 spike mutations reveals why scientists are so worried about the most evolved Covid strain ever
Just how heavily Omicron has mutated from both the original Covid virus and other variants such as Delta has been laid bare by new images
This is the image that has prompted fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK’s booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England.
It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s 32 spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet.
The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike.
As of yesterday, just 32 cases of Omicron have been detected in the UK but hundreds are expected to emerge in the coming days and there are signs it is spreading domestically already.
The new strain shares mutations with all of the main ‘variants of concern’ — including Alpha, Beta and Delta — but has dozens more which all point to heightened transmissibility and vaccine escape.
H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the image, are of particular concern as they could help the virus sneak into the body more easily. The new image was released by the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK).
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade body UK Hospitality, said ministers’ comments would have a serious financial impact on their businesses.
Advertising supremo Sir Martin Sorrell said there had been a ‘sharp series of cancellations’ in Christmas parties since the emergence of the Omicron variant.
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.
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 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.
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 and 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’.
Andrew Andrea, the boss of Marston’s, which runs 1,500 pubs and hotels across the UK, said the company had already been seeing bookings on a smaller scale this Christmas before the Omicron fears. He said: ‘We have seen a lot more bookings for 15 to 30 people, instead of the 60-plus bookings we saw more of before Covid.’
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.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves a car this morning after a run. He and No 10 say the guidance on parties is clear
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
Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows 8,561 people in South Africa tested positive in the last 24 hours — increasing six-fold in a week and nearly doubling on yesterday’s number — equating to a positivity rate of 16.5 per cent. South Africa has recorded 2.9million cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Covid deaths have increased from 22 last Wednesday to 28 today, marking a 27 per cent rise. The vast majority of cases are concentrated in Gauteng, the epicentre of the outbreak, in the north east
Christmas party leaves 50-60 people infected with suspected Omicron Covid in Norway in what would be world’s biggest outbreak of the variant
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 (Oslo HQ pictured) employees had recently returned from the renewable energy company’s South African office in Cape Town.
A Christmas party in Norway has left between 50 and 60 people infected with Covid-19, suspected to be the new super-mutant Omicron variant.
If confirmed, it would be the world’s biggest outbreak of the new strain so far.
Medics have ruled out the possibility the infections are Delta variant cases and said there was a ‘high probability’ it was the new strain.
Officials said 50 people tested positive on a PCR test following Norwegian renewable energy company Scatec’s Christmas dinner at Louise Restaurant & Bar in Oslo.
A further 10 people received positive results from lateral flow tests, NRK reported.
The Christmas party was held in a closed room but the guests reportedly mingled with other people in the restaurant after 10:30pm, when it turned into a nightclub.
At least two restaurant guests not involved in the Christmas party also later tested positive, though it is not yet clear if they were infected at the event or from a different contact.
Ten waiters who served the table were tested after the party, but none have tested positive.
One of the Scatec employees had recently returned from South Africa, where the company does some of its business.
It was not immediately clear if the employee was patient zero or if they had been travelling in South Africa for Scatec.
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.’
There has been a ‘sharp series of cancellations’ in Christmas parties since the emergence of the Omicron variant, according to the executive chairman of a major ad agency.
Sir Martin Sorrell, of S4Capital, said there is ‘extreme’ uncertainty.
Asked if they were cancelling office parties, he told the BBC Radio Four Today programme: ‘It’s not so much what we’re doing as what we see our clients doing and other people.
‘The answer is they are doing that, they are cancelling, (there has) been quite a sharp series of cancellations since this happened just, what, three, four, five days ago.
‘So, the uncertainty is extreme and Government policy, understandably, I mean to be a little bit sympathetic to the Government, it is an extremely difficult situation.
‘We have been through this before with Delta and the previous variants, so you would have thought the Government would be a little bit more prepared for what may or may not happen in terms of scenario planning.’
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.’
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.
‘(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.
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.
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
‘This was supposed to be the Christmas to save us’: Hospitality fury at government’s mixed messages
Britain’s pubs and restaurants have lashed out at the Government’s ‘catastrophic’ 48 hours of mixed messaging as firms call off Christmas parties and cancel bookings at hospitality venues across the country amid mounting uncertainty about the new Covid variant.
Hospitality businesses have accused Ministers of spreading ‘scare stories’ about the so-called ‘Omicron’ strain and giving conflicting advice about whether to limit their social contacts this winter.
Firms including Google, NatWest and Microsoft have either scrapped their Christmas parties or scaled them down, moved them online or pushed them into next year after Business Minister George Freeman said office celebrations should be limited to ‘four or five staff’ or axed completely.
Hospitality chiefs have warned the wave of cancellations could cost the sector ‘billions’ and without government grants or furlough in place will have a serious impact.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said fears about the new variant will have a ‘dampening effect’ and venues face making a loss without the cushion of financial support.
Last year the Government introduced schemes including business grants and furlough for businesses forced to close during the pandemic. These programmes remained in place for the subsequent 18 months and proved to be enormously costly.
Critics have accused Ministers of ‘scaremongering’, with the Government’s latest restrictions – including compulsory facemasks, blanket quarantine for ‘Omicron’ contacts and gloomy language about the threat of the new variant – actually encouraging a semi-lockdown by stealth, despite just 32 cases of the new strain detected so far.
But without an official change to Covid rules, the Government is highly unlikely to compensate venues which lose out – meaning that firms and hospitality businesses will be left to haggle over who foots the bill among themselves.
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.
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.
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.
His comments come as Dr. Anthony Fauci announces the first detected case of the Omicron variant in the US, saying it was identified by the San Francisco Departments of Public Health in California.
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.