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Omicron risk: where Boris Johnson and his advisers disagree

Prime minister said booster jabs will give ‘the protection you need’ but Sage experts are more cautious

The prime minister appeared to contradict one of his top health officials yesterday on how to respond to the Omicron variant, amid what was described as a “day of muddled messaging” from No. 10.

The head of the UK Health Security Agency, Dr Jenny Harries, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday morning that everyone should “decrease our social contacts a little bit” in order to limit the spread of Covid-19, and not socialise “when we don’t particularly need to”.

Her comments “caused panic in the hospitality industry”, said The Telegraph, and left Boris Johnson “scrambling to reassure the public that parties, Nativity plays and Christmas itself would go ahead”. When questioned at a Downing Street press conference, he confirmed: “We don’t want people to cancel such events.”

The PM’s spokesperson also pointed out that the UK Health Security Agency is “an arm’s-length body of government” and that Harries “is not a government minister”.

Her advice has been backed by some fellow experts, however. Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member Professor John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that Harries was “of course, correct” and that “reducing our social contacts now will slow the establishment of this new virus in our country”.

Vaccine claims

Amid an increasing tally of reported UK cases of Omicron, the latest Covid-19 variant of concern, Johnson told the press conference yesterday that “there are good grounds for believing that the boosters will give you, under all circumstances, the protection that you need”.

But minutes from a Sage meeting held on Monday, seen by the BBC, reportedly indicated that such conclusions are premature.

The government advisers said it was “highly likely” that Omicron can escape immunity caused by previous infection or vaccination “to some extent”, according to the broadcaster.

And although booster vaccines were likely to provide protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death from most variants in the short term, said the sage experts, “any significant reduction in protection against infection could still result in a very large wave of infections”, which “would in turn lead to a potentially high number of hospitalisations”.

The BBC said the minutes “make it clear that it is too early to know how ill the Omicron variant will make those infected or how that might vary by age”.

Christmas past haunting PM

The mixed messaging came amid fresh fears that the British public might not comply with new Covid restrictions. Ben Spencer, science editor of The Sunday Times, warned that “the clarity with which ministers present the request” will be pivotal to any adherence.

But the push for clarity has been hindered by newly published reports that Johnson and his Downing Street staff broke Covid rules by attending parties at No. 10 in the run-up to Christmas last year.

According to The Mirror, the PM gave a speech at a “packed leaving do” for a top aide last November, when the country was in the grip of the second national lockdown. And just days before Christmas, with London in Tier 3 restrictions, members of his top team reportedly held an unofficial festive bash at Downing Street. A spokesperson did not deny the claims but told the paper that “Covid rules have been followed at all times”.

‘Clear as mud’

The i news site’s chief political commentator Paul Waugh has also warned that “public health is often a matter of the right messaging as much as the right policies, and clarity is crucial”.

But Harries’ comments about decreasing social contact were “bewilderingly vague”, said Waugh. And the government’s “messaging ‘Omi-shambles’ over Omicron” may have “further fuelled suspicions ministers are so nervous of public opinion they fail to be straight about advice received”.

Despite ministerial reassurances, Waugh concluded that “the guidance on ‘social contacts’ will for many seem as clear as mud”.

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