UK public health chief overruled after calling on people to limit socialising

Boris Johnson has overruled the head of the UK’s public health watchdog after she told people to avoid unnecessary socialising in the run-up to Christmas.

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said on Tuesday morning that the public should “decrease our social contacts a little bit” to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Harries said that further action was necessary because — even if vaccines work against the new Omicron variant — a rise in infections could put the NHS under strain.

“And of course, our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas, we tend to socialise more so I think all of those will need to be taken into account,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jabs.”

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the government, told Sky News it was a “time for caution” and urged people to “stay at home when they can to avoid contact with others” to help the country through the difficult period.

But a Downing Street spokesman stated that Harries’ comments were not government policy, saying: “People should follow the guidance the government has set out.”

The conflicting advice comes at a difficult time for the hospitality industry after ministers announced a limited tightening of restrictions, including wearing face masks in shops and on public transport.

MPs will vote on Tuesday afternoon to approve the latest Covid-19 restrictions including PCR tests for people returning from abroad. The House of Commons is expected to retrospectively back the rules, which came into effect from 4am on the same day.

Kate Nicholls, head of trade body UK Hospitality, has warned that bookings for hotels, bars and restaurants were running at about 75 per cent — down from the usual 95 per cent in the run-up to Christmas.

Conservative MPs said they were “furious” with Harries. “She’s been hammered [by No 10] because she was freelancing with that ridiculous comment about socialising. It will have a negative effect on local business,” said one.

Johnson told broadcasters it was “always sensible to be careful” but said the government was not going to change the overall guidance.

“We’ve been living with a pandemic for a long time, people should continue to do things like make sure they have lots of fresh air, they wash their hands and take normal precautions, I think that’s entirely reasonable,” he said.

In the Commons, Steve Brine, a Tory former health minister, said that Christmas parties were being cancelled “left, right and centre” just in case the rules tightened further.

Another Conservative backbencher, Sir Desmond Swayne, asked Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, about Harries’ comments.

“Will she deprecate those public appointees who, not withstanding the clear proportionate advice of the chief scientific adviser, have been out on the airwaves telling people that they shouldn’t socialise, to the huge detriment of people’s wellbeing and industries struggling to recover from earlier lockdowns?”

Throup replied: “We all do enjoy socialising but as (he) will appreciate that we are in a difficult situation at the moment, but we have personal responsibility as well.”


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