Office Christmas parties are being cancelled and employees told to work from home as companies scramble to protect staff from the Omicron variant.
Fears that an outbreak at a festive event will force workers to self-isolate for Christmas are encouraging companies large and small to cancel, postpone or move events online.
Boris Johnson insisted on Tuesday that there was no need to cancel Christmas parties, nativity plays and other seasonal festivities, although government science advisers have struck a more cautious note. On Monday Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, urged people to “decrease social contacts”.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said yesterday that it was “absolutely fine” for people to “go ahead with whatever we’ve planned for Christmas”, but encouraged them to take a lateral flow test first. He said: “If I was going to a party with 300 or 400 people for Christmas, I would take a [lateral flow] test before I go. I think it’s just a sensible precaution to take.”
Yesterday Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, told Peston on ITV: “I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe. Don’t need to do things like that.”
The updated government guidance on the virus does not include advice on kissing or other forms of physical contact. It suggests that people can “choose to limit” their close contact with others.
Staff working for employers including University College London, NHS trusts, the toy company Bandai and Age UK were among those who took to social media yesterday to report that parties had been cancelled. Daniel Rosney, a BBC reporter, tweeted: “All BBC News Christmas parties now cancelled.”
Under rules announced last week, anyone confirmed to be infected with the Omicron variant has to isolate for ten days, as does anyone who has come into contact with them.
Large employers were either telling staff to work from home or imposing stricter measures in the office. The investment manager Brewin Dolphin told staff in London that they could stay away from the office from December 10 until January 7. The insurer Aviva said it was insisting that staff were temperature tested at entrances to offices and took a daily lateral flow test before coming in.
Google has emailed staff urging them to “move any planned in-person social gatherings until 2022” and limiting them to no more than 15 people. Ronan Harris, the managing director for Google UK & Ireland, told workers that face-to-face business meetings and events must be approved by a director.
Hospitals are also asking workers not to mix in big groups to limit the “potential threat” to their health and the knock-on effect on services.
However, Christmas parties have been the biggest casualty so far. DesignMyNight, the events organiser, said that cancellations surged 15 per cent after the prime minister issued his first statement about the new strain.
Eventurous, another event management company, said some of its clients were switching from live parties to virtual ones. Lorna Boyer, of the company, said: “We’ve seen a big uptake in virtual Christmas party inquiries, almost doubling since the announcement was made. The feedback we’re hearing is that companies are trying to stay on the safe side and listening to how their employees are feeling. It’s looking like a 50-50 split now between live and virtual Christmas parties.”
Waitrose said that sales of its wine tasting and cocktail making experiences, in which those attending virtual events are sent boxes of drinks to make and consume, were up 200 per cent on this time last year, with the demand mostly driven by businesses.
Daisy Hooper, head of policy at the Chartered Management Institute, said: “The ‘shall we or shan’t we’ discussion around whether to have an office Christmas party this year is a tricky one to resolve. Duty of care by managers is a strong factor in whether to allow people to come together in a party setting given the Covid risks we’re seeing.”