Covid in Scotland: People urged to cancel Christmas parties

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Public Health Scotland said a number of Omicron Covid outbreaks were linked to parties

People in Scotland have been urged to cancel Christmas parties due to the rising number of cases of the Omicron Covid variant.

Public Health Scotland said a number of outbreaks caused by Omicron were linked to Christmas parties.

Dr Nick Phin, its director of Public Health Science, said postponing plans would help to "protect ourselves".

The first minister said earlier this week that she expected Omicron cases to rise rapidly in Scotland.

One case of the new variant was recorded on Thursday, taking the total to 109, according to the latest figures - although the actual number of cases is believed to be much higher.

Scotland had 16 coronavirus deaths and 3,196 new cases in the past 24 hours.

The Public Health Scotland (PHS) announcement came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday that: "We don't want people to cancel such events."

PHS said early evidence suggested that the Omicron variant is much more transmissible that previous strains of the virus.

Dr Phin added: "The impact of this transmissibility has been seen in recent weeks, with a number of Omicron outbreaks linked to parties.

"We still need to learn more about the severity of disease caused by Omicron and the effectiveness of vaccines, but there are important things that we can do to help protect ourselves and our families now."

'Bolt out of blue'

Dr Phin said that to minimise the further spread of the virus, PHS is asking people to "defer their Christmas parties to another time".

"I appreciate that everyone is keen to celebrate this festive season, particularly after the pressures of the last twenty months, but by postponing some plans we can all do our bit to protect ourselves and our loved ones," he said.

UK Hospitality Scotland said the announcement had come "like a bolt out of the blue".

Executive director Leon Thompson told BBC Radio Scotland's Drivetime programme: "There was no prior notification that Public Health Scotland would be issuing this plea to the public to cancel going out for Christmas.

"This will be setting our members reeling this evening as they will be listening to their phones ringing and seeing all the cancellations coming in by email as we speak."

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Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said that Christmas trade was "a very big deal"

Scotland's finance secretary Kate Forbes said she understood it was a blow for the hospitality sector, but said she could not offer financial help unless Westminster provided more funding.

She told BBC Radio Scotland: "I would like to be in a position to provide additional support for businesses and I've made that clear to them, but with a fixed budget I can't create money overnight.

"We have joined with the Welsh government to speak to the Treasury to see if additional funding could be made available to help businesses through this very challenging period.

"They only get the Christmas trade once a year - they didn't get it last year - it's a very big deal."

Less than an hour before the announcement, the Scottish government's national clinical director Prof Jason Leitch had told Radio Clyde that people could still hold parties if they "do it carefully".

He said: "The present guidance today is to be careful - don't cancel your arrangements but think about testing, think about vaccination and think about following the guidance

"But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy your Christmas."

This is not a legally-enforceable ban on Christmas parties. The Covid rules have not changed. But the advice carries the weight of Scotland's public health agency.

The fear is that the Omicron variant could lead to a surge in new cases followed by a significant rise in hospital admissions and deaths.

The question is whether many of the people planning big parties will listen to the advice. During lockdown, police broke up a number of parties being held in contravention of the rules.

Today, the number of people in Scotland who have had booster jabs passed the two million milestone. However, more than a fifth of people aged between 18 and 30 remain completely unvaccinated.

Will younger people planning a Christmas night out who have not listened to the advice on vaccination listen to advice to call off a party?

Jillian Evans, head of health intelligence at NHS Grampian, stressed that the PHS announcement was an appeal, rather than an instruction.

She said: "With many reports of super-spreader events - with Omicron being the cause of a lot of the transmission and linked to Christmas parties - it seems right to issue an appeal.

"It's not telling people not to have their Christmas parties but it's appealing to people's better nature, if you can, do the right thing."

Nicola Sturgeon is expected to give a televised update on Omicron in Scotland on Friday.