Britons should avoid “snogging under the mistletoe” this Christmas, according to a government minister, as a leading scientist said people could enjoy Christmas if they took “sensible” precautions.
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.”
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 of coronavirus.
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.”
The science minister, George Freeman, also told people to “exercise some common sense” about who they kissed and where, adding to LBC that it was “up to all of us” to help control the spread of the Omicron variant and avoid the potential need for tougher curbs to tackle it.
He also 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 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 new 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”.
West said: “In other words, keep flexible. Make your plans, by all means, as I am, but do it in a way which means that should the worst come to the worst, and we have to make sure that people stay apart from each other as much as possible as is safe, then you can still enjoy the holiday period.”
Covid-19 vaccines for potential booster rollouts in the next two years have been secured by ministers.
While there is uncertainty over the need for future campaigns, the government announced it has signed deals for 114m Moderna and Pfizer jabs that will be delivered in 2022 and 2023.
Javid said the deals, which included 60m additional doses of the Moderna vaccine and 54m more Pfizer/BioNTech doses, would “future-proof” the country’s vaccine programme.