Boris Johnson has said people do not need to cancel their festive plans in light of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
The Prime Minister, who received his booster dose of the Covid vaccine on Thursday, urged the public to “continue as they are” within the new measures introduced to stop the spread of the virus.
He was speaking after business minister George Freeman appeared to muddy the waters by suggesting parties may depend on how many people are attending.
Earlier, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “I think, as you know, Government advice does not set any limits on numbers.
“There is nothing in the rules to prevent anyone from having Christmas parties or gathering in that way.”
Mr Johnson, speaking to broadcasters at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, said: “I want to repeat the guidance is there and I’m very, very keen that people understand this, we don’t want people to feel that they need to start cancelling things, to start… you talk about kids in nativity plays and that kind of thing.
“I don’t think there’s any need to stop that at all.
“I think we’re taking a balanced and proportionate approach to the risk, but I want and I believe that Christmas this year will be considerably better than Christmas last year.”
No 10 denied there is any confusion after the most recent pronouncement from ministers on Christmas party etiquette, but hospitality firms have accused the Government of being “inconsistent”.
Asked whether he will be holding a Christmas party himself, Mr Johnson said events take place in Downing Street “the whole time”, and added: “We had events for Hanukkah, we turned the Christmas lights on, and all sorts of things in Number 10, and in accordance with the rules as you would expect.”
Mr Freeman, a minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, earlier said his Whitehall festive party will not be “big” and his pre-Christmas drinks with staff in his MP office have been switched to Zoom.
“I can tell you, the Department of Business, we won’t be having a big Christmas party this year. Nobody would expect us to,” he told Times Radio.
He later told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it is up to individual businesses to “make judgments on what is appropriate” in terms of staff social gatherings.
“It slightly depends on the nature of the business,” he said. “For many small businesses, four or five staff, who are working together every day any way, gathering to have a drink isn’t a big step up in risk.
“But some companies might normally bring hundreds of people in from around the world to a big party, and they may decide, this year, is that sensible given the pandemic and given where we are?”
The boss of pub group Young’s, which runs more than 270 sites across the UK, confirmed the business has seen some Christmas parties cancelled amid concerns over Omicron.
Criticising Government messaging regarding the variant, Patrick Dardis told the PA news agency: “I think the messaging has been terribly confusing and inconsistent.
“One moment you have Jenny Harries (chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency) telling people to avoid socialising and an hour later you have (Health Secretary) Sajid Javid saying the opposite.
“I think the messaging started as a complete over-reaction and, unsurprisingly, it has concerned some people.”
In a joint statement, UKHospitality, the British Institute of Innkeeping and the British Beer & Pub Association urged those with plans “not to cancel”, with bookings down on previous years.
“The full range of hospitality venues across the UK would usually be experiencing their annual bookings bonanza at this time of year, but it hadn’t materialised even before Omicron was first detected,” the organisations said.
“The WHO (World Health Organisation) announcement that Omicron infections are generally mild, plus Government promptings for festive gatherings to go ahead as planned, offer a crumb of comfort and could at least slow the slew of cancellations the sector has experienced in the week since Omicron was discovered.
“We’d therefore urge those with bookings not to cancel them but to carry on and enjoy their festive season parties, safe in the knowledge that hospitality venues are doing everything they can to ensure people have a safe and fun Christmas and new year.”
On Wednesday, WHO Covid-19 technical lead Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said there have been reports of Omicron cases which “go from mild disease all the way to severe disease”, but stressed it is still early days.
Royal College of Nursing Council chairwoman Carol Popplestone said Covid infections had already been on the rise before the new variant was discovered, and she argued “mixed messages” from ministers over Christmas plans could create “even more worry and confusion”.
“It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing. That’s why it’s critical that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms isolates and gets a PCR test immediately.”
A further seven cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus were confirmed in England and another three in Scotland on Thursday, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.
It brings the total number of confirmed cases in England to 29 and the total in Scotland to 13.
In England, cases have been identified in the East Midlands, East of England, London, South East and North West.
As of 9am on Thursday, there had been a further 53,945 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK, the highest number of daily reported cases since July 17.
The Government also said a further 141 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday.
Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 170,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.
Meanwhile, a scientist assessing vaccines said his group is ready to move “very quickly” on deciding whether children aged five to 12 should be given a Covid jab in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said it is waiting for approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) before making a judgment on whether vaccines should be offered.
The MHRA is expected to rule shortly on whether the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is safe and effective in young children. The vaccine has already been approved for youngsters in the EU and US.
Prof Finn told BBC Breakfast there is a “law of diminishing returns” when it comes to young children, as they are largely protected from serious Covid-19.
It comes as the boss of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Dr Albert Bourla, said annual vaccines to tackle Covid-19 are likely to be needed.