Covid: No 10 plans to host Christmas parties despite ministers’ warnings

No 10 is expecting to host a number of gatherings this Christmas and insisted it was not suggesting parties should be cancelled, after two government ministers said big gatherings and “snogging under the mistletoe” should be avoided.

The controversy comes amid anger over reports that Downing Street staff held multiple gatherings over the Christmas period last year when the UK was under lockdown.

On Thursday, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, wrote to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, demanding he investigate last year’s celebrations. The former permanent secretary of the government’s legal department, Jonathan Jones, tweeted he had been due to have his own leaving party last Christmas. “This did not happen for – well – legal reasons.”

Downing Street has struggled to keep messaging on Christmas gatherings coherent this year after introducing new mask-wearing rules and restrictions on travel to combat the threat of the Omicron variant.

A number of senior political figures have Westminster Christmas drinks planned, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer.

But the science minister, George Freeman, told people to “exercise some common sense” and said his team would be gathering virtually for Christmas drinks over Zoom but it “slightly depends on the nature of the business” whether the same move was advisable.

Advising whether companies should do the same, Freeman said a small firm with six or so staff who normally worked in an office together gathering to have a drink “isn’t a big step-up in risk”. However, he warned that businesses that might have hundreds of attendees at their annual festive gathering, including some travelling from overseas, “may ask, is that sensible?”

Asked whether there was a party at Downing Street last December in defiance of Covid rules, Freeman said he had “no idea” because he was not invited – but added: “I have checked and I’m told by those who were that all the guidance was followed.”

Earlier the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, 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.”

She added: “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.”

Coffey said kissing should be avoided with “people you don’t already know”.

She later tweeted: “Watch the full interview folks … Don’t kiss with people you don’t know … government working exceptionally hard with NHS and the jabs army to get boosters in arms so we can all enjoy a proper Christmas knees up.”

But No 10 suggested ministers were exercising their own personal judgment that was not reflective of government policy. “The prime minister has been very clear on this. On Christmas parties, we don’t want people to cancel such events. There is no government guidance to that end.”

Asked whether Freeman was wrong to imply that firms should consider not having a Christmas party or replace it with a smaller gathering, the spokesperson replied: “That is not in the guidance, it is not in the regulations.”

Prof Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said vaccines could do “a lot of the heavy lifting” amid concerns about the Omicron variant.

But he acknowledged there were “so many uncertainties” about the new strain, and its full impact would not be known “for a couple of weeks”.

Suggesting measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, he told Sky News: “If people are sensible then I don’t see any reason why we can’t all enjoy Christmas again, unless this variant takes a real turn for the worse.”

Earlier, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said people should continue following government advice despite warnings from some health officials about the risks of socialising.

The government has tightened rules around PCR tests for travellers returning to the UK and introduced quarantine rules for people from high-risk countries, as well as bringing back face coverings in shops and on public transport in England.

It has also accelerated the Covid booster programme to try to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

Prof Robert West, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, urged people to make “flexible” plans for the holiday period.

He told Sky News he personally would not be making plans “that involve gatherings that can’t be changed”.


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