Downing Street have confirmed “in-person events” such as parties will be held in the lead up to the festive period as a Cabinet minister urged Britons to “keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans”.
A Number 10 spokesperson told Sky News celebrations will be held across Whitehall in the run up to Christmas despite fears over the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“As the prime minister has previously made clear, these events are within the latest guidance and we do not want people to cancel them,” the spokesperson said.
It comes as the number of confirmed Omicron cases in the UK is expected to rise sharply from the current total of 42.
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A source confirmed to Sky News that there will be an official update to UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures “shortly” and the UK total “won’t be less” than 66.
Meanwhile, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), one in 60 people were expected to have coronavirus in the week up to 27 November.
The latest data was released as Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden told Sky News that people should continue to go to the pub and dine at restaurants during the festive season.
Mr Dowden said the government had taken “sufficient” action against Omicron so far and that there is no need for people to cancel their festive plans.
“The message to people is fairly straightforward, which is keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans,” Mr Dowden said.
“We’ve put the necessary restrictions in place, but beyond that, keep calm and carry on.”
But many are cancelling festive events off their own accord, with supermarket Sainsbury’s the latest to ask colleagues to postpone their Christmas parties amid fears the new variant will lead to higher staff absence levels during the holiday trading period.
Scientists are worried the new Omicron variant could be more transmissible or more evasive to existing immunity than other strains of the virus.
The government has responded by reintroducing mandatory mask-wearing in some settings in England, while also tightening self-isolation rules and travel restrictions.
However, recent days have also seen mixed messages from government ministers and public health officials over what festive celebrations, including Christmas parties, should look like this year.
This has led to criticism from within the hospitality industry, which has reported the cancellation of some Christmas parties.
But Mr Dowden echoed Prime Minister Boris Johnson in stating that people shouldn’t abandon their existing plans.
“We have not changed the advice around people taking part in hospitality – so going to the pub, going to restaurants and so on,” he added.
“And actually I think most pubs and restaurants up until very recently have been doing very well during this season and we’re not discouraging people to do so.”
Mr Dowden later revealed that the Conservatives were pushing ahead with a planned Christmas party themselves.
“I think there’s a Conservative Party political party, as it were, Christmas party, I think is still planned, and I don’t intend to cancel it as chairman of the Conservative Party,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“It will just be a normal Christmas gathering of staff that are in London, we have staff in Leeds as well, and that is completely consistent with the rules, and I would urge people to keep calm and carry on with their plans.
“We’re not changing our plans either. Of course, if the situation changes and rules need to be updated, we’ll comply with the rules as they stand.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has revealed that a review of the party’s Christmas gatherings led to a decision that a large get-together for the parliamentary Labour party would no longer go ahead.
However, she added: “We’ve said quite clearly that we don’t think people should cancel their Christmas gatherings.
“But we do think the government should make clear advice to people what they should be doing.”
It is understood that other Labour festive events are still being planned.
In his Sky News interview, Mr Dowden added the government’s response to Omicron was “sufficient at this stage”.
And he said he was “confident” that Britons would be able to “have a better Christmas than last year”, although he urged people to get a COVID vaccine booster when they are called to do so.
“All of our advice is based on scientific evidence and indeed the chief medical officer [Professor Chris Whitty] and chief scientific adviser [Sir Patrick Vallance] attend cabinet and were at cabinet when we discussed this earlier this week,” he said.
“That is why we have gone for this balanced and proportionate set of measures.
“So it is the case that, unlike previously in England, people will have to wear masks on public transport and they’ll have to wear masks in retail settings and we’ve very much tightened up the border restrictions.
“We believe those are necessary and appropriate steps, but beyond that people can carry on with their plans as before.
“So I would say to people just keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans as already set out.”
Your Omicron questions answered: Watch a special programme with COVID experts on Sky News at 7pm