Boris Johnson has insisted the government is “not locking stuff down” and said ministers do not “want to make your choices for you about your social life”.
His comments came after England’s Chief Medical Officer warned COVID records will be broken a lot in the next few weeks and urged people: “Don’t mix with people you don’t have to.”
Addressing the nation in Wednesday’s Downing Street news briefing, Prof Whitty also encouraged people to take tests before visiting vulnerable people and to meet in well ventilated areas or outdoors where possible in the run-up to Christmas.
But some Conservative MPs have accused the chief medical officer of going beyond his brief.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Conservative Steve Brine, a former public health minister, said: “At a stroke the chief medical officer changed Government policy and put this country, certainly hospitality… into effective lockdown.”
While on a visit to the Saga vaccination centre in Ramsgate, Kent, the prime minister was asked by reporters whether the latest advice amounted to a lockdown by “stealth”.
Mr Johnson rejected the suggestion, saying the vaccine roll-out meant things were “very different” from last winter, but said people should be “cautious” in the next few weeks.
He added: “What we have is the additional protection of the vaccines, and the ability to test.
“So if you want to do something, if you want to go to an event or a party, then the sensible thing to do, if that’s a priority, the sensible thing to do is to get a test and to make sure that you’re being cautious.
“But we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.”
Christmas socialising debate
Mr Johnson reiterated that Plan B is being implemented “which has some sensible restrictions”, adding that this is the “balanced” and “proportionate” approach to take to the new Omicron variant.
But the PM also said he will do “whatever I have to to protect the public”.
Downing Street also denied the government is sending out mixed messages on social contacts following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Family visits over Christmas will be down to “individual circumstances and judgment”, Number 10 said.
Calls for economic support
Following Prof Whitty’s comments on Wednesday evening, hospitality firms said they will 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.
Earlier on Thursday morning, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Kay Burley “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.”
But the prime minister insisted to broadcasters that his government has “kept business going” through the pandemic and that lots of financial support is still available.
“We’ve kept businesses going throughout the crisis with more than £400 billion worth of support,” the PM said.
“We’ll continue to support business with the COVID recovery loans, with business rate reductions, with VAT reductions, and the best thing we can do is make sure that we get back to normality as fast as possible by getting boosted now.”
Prof Whitty quizzed on Omicron
Mr Johnson’s comments came as Prof Whitty answered MPs’ questions on the new Omicron variant at a hearing of the Health and Social Care Select Committee.
England’s chief medical officer said it is “entirely possible” that the number of daily hospital admissions because of the Omicron variant could exceed the record set for COVID in January.
Meanwhile, Dr Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency’s chief medical adviser, told MPs on the committee that for Omicron, the R value in the UK is between 3 and 5 – meaning every person infected with the variant is believed to be passing it on to between three and five others.
Dr Susan Hopkins also told the hearing that reliable data on Omicron will not be available until the week between Christmas and New Year at the earliest, and may not appear before early January.
The UK recorded its highest-ever number of coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with 78,610 registered in the last 24-hour period.