Boris Johnson has told people to “think carefully” before meeting in the run-up to Christmas, but he has failed to impose new, stricter rules as fears about the spread of the Omicron variant grow.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said people should “prioritize” events in society that are important to them and avoid those that don’t.
The warning has raised fears that pubs, bars and restaurants could suffer huge losses if people voluntarily choose to stay away.
While the prime minister urged people to be careful, there is no additional financial support for the hospitality industry.
Speaking at a press conference on Downing Street on Wednesday, Johnson said, “We don’t say what people’s parties are or their ability to mingle, what we say is think carefully before you leave.
“If you are likely to meet people at risk, you will meet a lot of people you have never met before and get tested, ventilated, wear a mask during transport.”
Whitty told the briefing, “There are some things we don’t know about Omicron, but all of the things we know are bad.
“I think what most people do, and I think it seems very sensible, is to prioritize the social interactions that are really important to them and, to protect them, those that are much less important to them prioritize, “he said.
“I think that is becoming more and more important when we go into Christmas time, for example.”
Whitty added that he “strongly encourages” people to do tests before visiting those at risk and, if possible, to meet in areas with good ventilation or outdoors.
Torsten Bell, chairman of the business think tank Resolution Foundation, said: “If you tell people to avoid hospitality, it doesn’t matter if you don’t forbid it: restaurants, pubs, bars are getting crammed. You will lose customers and workers will lose their jobs. “
It came when the UK recorded 78,610 new cases of Covid, a record high.
Whitty said the government had to choose between “really inedible options,” adding that there is still no clear data on serious illnesses and deaths from Omicron with two vaccinations and what the picture is for those who have received boosters.
He said, “I think what most people do – and I think that seems very reasonable – is to prioritize the social interactions that mean a lot to them and, to prioritize them, override the ones that mean much less to them . “
He said he “strongly encouraged” people to do lateral flow tests and ensure good ventilation before the meeting.
Whitty added that Omicron is moving “at an absolutely phenomenal pace” and that it will only be a short time before we get to “very large numbers”, adding that he thought the variant was “a very serious threat”.
The expert said, “all things we know (about Omicron) are bad”.
He said the existence of effective vaccines and booster shots is what “is for us” but told his NHS colleagues that “significant numbers” will be hospitalized and that will become apparent “pretty soon after Christmas”.