People should “make a sensible choice” if their priority is to make it to the Christmas dinner table with their families, a health minister has said – while not ruling out the possibility of more restrictions being imposed.
Gillian Keegan told Kay Burley that individuals should “take a different approach” if they want to “make it through to Christmas Day”.
Her comments come after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty expressed caution about festive plans during a Downing Street news briefing on Wednesday evening, suggesting that it is “sensible” and is “going to become increasingly important” that people “prioritise” the social contact they most value and “deprioritise” other interactions.
Ms Keegan added that while the government is “not intending to make any more restrictions”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson “won’t hesitate to act” if the situation worsens.
The UK recorded its highest-ever number of coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with 78,610 registered in the last 24-hour period.
Ms Keegan was pressed on the latest hospitalisation figures for those with the new Omicron variant by Kay Burley on Thursday morning but became the second minister to get their figures wrong on Sky News this week.
The health minister said: “There is 774.”
When queried whether this was 774 people in hospital, a rise since the 10 reported hospitalisations on Wednesday, Ms Keegan clarified: “That is total hospitalisations in the last seven days. With Omicron there is 10 cases with Omicron… maybe going up to 11, actually.”
The dashboard containing the latest coronavirus data shows that 774 was the number of daily hospitalisations for 11 December.
On Tuesday, Deputy PM Dominic Raab told Sky News there were 250 people in hospital with the Omicron variant, before later revising his figure to nine on the BBC.
Officials later clarified that this was incorrect too, and there were in fact 10 people in hospital with the new variant on Tuesday morning.
Ms Keegan told Sky News that “everybody is urging caution” due to the fast spread of Omicron.
“Most of us will know somebody now who’s positive with COVID, and that means if you’ve tested positive, then you’ll be in isolation over Christmas. So that’s bound to make people a bit more cautious,” she said.
“Make a sensible choice for yourself, make a sensible choice. You know, if you’re going to go to a party, take a test. If there’s lots of people there you don’t know, if that’s your priority, fine. If your priority is to make it through to Christmas Day with your family then take a different approach.
“Everybody’s got different pros and cons, you know, so make a sensible decision but definitely wear a mask and definitely, you know, make sure that you take a test beforehand and also try to go to well-ventilated places as well.”
Asked if people should cut back their social contacts ahead of the festive period, NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powiss told reporters: “Well, I think we have seen the public act incredibly sensibly throughout this pandemic and when we see rising infection rates they do become cautious again.
“So it is important that people see friends and family during Christmas but be sensible, think about particularly when you are meeting vulnerable people take a lateral flow test beforehand for example.
“And of course, make sure you get that booster dose, because the boosters are the thing that will protect us against Omicron.”
Ms Keegan insisted to Kay Burley that there were still measures in place to help businesses through the pandemic, adding that “of course, the chancellor keeps everything under review”.
She also suggested that offering second coronavirus vaccines to children aged 12 to 15 should be enough to keep schools open despite the rising number of infections.
Ms Keegan told Kay Burley she recognises the promise to offer everyone a booster jab by the end of the year is a “very stretching target”, but said she could guarantee the pledge.
On Wednesday, Prof Whitty, speaking at a Downing Street news conference, warned the UK was facing “a really serious threat” from the new coronavirus variant.
Prof Whitty said that daily COVID case records “will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up”.
And he also warned that these would translate into “big numbers” being treated in hospital in the coming weeks.
But the hospitality sector say this means they need more help to cover cancellations over the festive period.
MPs from across the House of Commons, including Conservatives, have now called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Treasury to step in and give further support to businesses through the coming weeks.
The chancellor was also accused by trade unions of being “missing in action” after it emerged he was on a four-day trip to California this week.
On Thursday morning, Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Kay Burley: “I think it is time for Rishi Sunak to get on a plane, get back from California, get business leaders and trade union leaders around the table to thrash out a plan, a package of support, to help good hospitality businesses through what will be a very challenging period for them.”
And Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham tweeted: “You can’t tell people to ‘think carefully’ before going to pubs and restaurants and then fail to provide any support for the workers/businesses affected.
“The government needs to bring forward a support package TODAY for hospitality, events, music and other affected sectors.”
Prof Whitty will be questioned by MPs on the new Omicron variant at a Commons committee hearing later today.