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What are the risks around Christmas parties and how you can mitigate them?

  • Report by ITV News Multimedia Producer Suzanne Elliott

With Britons told to cut down on their socialising during the festive season, nativity plays cancelled, work events called off and kissing under the mistletoe an increasingly contentious issue, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas... 2020.

With concern and anxiety over the Omicron variant rising, will Covid once again ruin the nation’s Christmas plans?

Despite the Omicron Covid variant threatening to wreck immunity levels in the UK, the country's successful vaccine programme and ramped up booster rollout means we are unlikely to see a return to the restrictions we saw last year.

In 2020, millions in Tier 4 areas could not meet with people outside their own household or support bubble, while others were allowed to meet only on Christmas Day.

But caution has been advised, if not actual guidelines, so how can we stay safe socialising in the run up to Christmas?

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Should I go to a Christmas party?

That depends on many factors - how big the do is, your age, your immunity, and not least, how you feel.

"'Christmas party' is a really a rather large canopy to be talking about," Public health expert, Professor Siân Griffiths, tells ITV News.

"It may be a small party, you may be sitting down at a meal, dancing close together. There's a sort of range of things where you say: 'Well, hang on, do you feel comfortable in that environment'? And if you don't feel comfortable in our environment, don't go to that environment," she says.

Prof Griffiths says she would not tell people to cancel, but with the the government guidelines unclear, people should use their own judgment, and respect other people's.

"I'm not saying everybody should cancel because it will depend on the numbers (smaller parties decrease the risk), the place, whether you're sitting down to eat, etc. So it does depend. This is all about thinking about the risks and respecting choices," she said.

"We know what the science says will reduce the risk, and you must do what you can to reduce the risk, but also respect other people if they choose not to take the risk."

 

Should I take a test before a Christmas party?

Yes, is the overwhelming advice.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said it would be "very sensible indeed" for people to check their Covid status with a quick-result lateral flow test before attending festive bashes, especially if there will be a lot of people attending.

Professor Griffiths agrees and adds "if it's positive, don't go (to the party).

"You must then isolate until you have your PCR result back."

Get your jab

"If you are eligible for a booster, have you had it? Have you had your vaccine? It's really important everybody gets vaccinated as soon as they can to the level at which it is recommended," Professor Griffiths says.

While it is voluntary to show your vaccine status in England, some venues, such theatres and nightclubs, are asking to see people's jab certificates.

If you are organising a large party, you might consider asking people to prove their immunity, Prof Griffiths says.

Brave the cold and open windows

We get it, it's December, but experts have stressed throughout the pandemic the importance of opening a window or two. Experts believe the virus can survive in a stuffy room for several hours, which means letting in a bit of air could be a life saving decision.

Professor Paul Linden from Cambridge University, an expert in the airborne spread of Covid, says: "It is a real risk being indoors all day with the windows closed; this really increases the risk of airborne transmission of the disease.

"Don't stay in a room that feels stuffy because that's an indiction of high carbon dioxide levels which is what you exhale, breathe out."

While she acknowledges Britain's inclement weather is not compatible with al fresco dining in December, Professor Griffiths also highlights the importance of opening windows.

"There's a sense of keeping yourself safe, keeping the crowds safe, and in the environments in which you are, making sure that the space is well ventilated because aerosol as well as droplets spread.

"Ventilation is a very important part of all of this," she adds.

Can we kiss under the mistletoe?

People should "snog who they wish" under the mistletoe this Christmas, Mr Javid, contrary to Covid advice given by another senior minister.

"There's guidance already out there, just be cautious and enjoy yourselves," he said, although added that it would be his wife he would be kissing. So the advice seems to be, get up close only with those in your bubble.

I feel anxious about Omicron - should I cancel my plans?

Many workplaces have cancelled Christmas parties in light of the new variant, whose transmissibility and severity scientists do not yet know. For those whose dos are still going ahead, it is important to remember not to feel pressured to attend.

Professor Griffiths tells ITV News people should manage their own risks and consider their own situation, and other people must respect those choices.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott says it is understandable that we are becoming increasingly anxious over the new Covid-19 variant Omicron, but adds it is behaving as expected, with early indications suggesting it is more transmissible and less lethal (although it is early days, experts warn. He said the return of public health measures is "sensible" and "should not be seen as an emergency".

“The latest variant of Covid-19, Omicron, is doing what all viruses do, mutating to survive and making copies of itself," Mr McDermott says.

"Mask, hand hygiene and social space are extremely effective on top of the medial interventions we have with vaccines, boosters and therapeutics”. 

"We don’t panic about the flu jab each winter we trust our medical services to deal with it. That is the way we are going with Covid-19, but we have a few more years ahead. Though this winter is likely to be the last one we see major public health responses."