Home » Gavin Williamson Hosted ‘lockdown Breaching Party When London Was In Tier 2’

Gavin Williamson Hosted ‘lockdown Breaching Party When London Was In Tier 2’

A second Government party broke lockdown rules over Christmas last year, it was alleged this morning, with Gavin Williamson accused of hosting a canapes evening while London was in Tier 2 restrictions.

Mr Williamson, then the education secretary, threw a bash for ‘up to two-dozen people’ in his department, the Daily Mirror reported.

It comes as Downing Street continued to sidestep claims their staff Christmas do broke guidelines. Police were last night investigating that party as footage emerged of staffers joking about how they would brand it a ‘business meeting’ to get around the Tier 3 ban on festivities.

The Daily Mirror reports that on December 10 last year, Mr Williamson’s staff attended a ‘drinks and canapes’ event in the department’s Westminster offices.

Mr Williamson is said to have given a short speech at the evening event before ministers ‘mingled’ and knocked back wine. One source described it as ‘reckless’.

The DfE did not deny the report by the publication, instead admitting that it ‘would have been better’ not to have held it while several parts of the country were banned from doing so.

A spokesman for the department said: ‘On December 10 2020 a gathering of colleagues who were already present at the office – and who had worked together throughout the pandemic, as they couldn’t work from home – took place in the DfE office building in London at a time when the city was subject to Tier 2 restrictions.’

The soirée came a week before Boris Johnson’s alleged party in No10 that has caused a huge outpouring of anger – but the event would still have been in breach of Tier 2 rules that were in place at the time.

Footage last night emerged of Downing Street aides joking about branding their own Christmas party as a ‘business meeting’ to hide the fact it broke Covid laws.

A newly surfaced video shows No10 special advisors taking part in a fake press conference just days after the alleged December 18 event last year which has raised legal questions and denials of wrongdoing from No10.

The clip, discovered by ITV news, shows Allegra Stratton, then the PM’s press secretary, and Ed Oldfield, No10’s head of digital, rehearsing a question and answer session in the No9 briefing room.

In it Oldfield asks a question about ‘a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night’, to which Ms Stratton laughs and replies: ‘I went home.’

When he asks if the Prime Minister would condone such a party, Ms Stratton appears unsure how to respond and asks the room: ‘What’s the answer?’

Ex-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been accused of throwing a ‘drinks and canapes’ event in his former department while London was under Tier 2 restrictions on December 10 last year. Mr Williamson is said to have given a short speech at the evening event before ministers ‘mingled’ and knocked back wine. One source described it as ‘reckless’

It is reported that up to two dozen of Mr Williamson’s staff attended a ‘drinks and canapes’ event in the department’s Westminster offices (pictured). The DfE did not deny the report by the publication, instead admitting that it ‘would have been better’ not to have held it while several parts of the country were banned from doing so

Mr Johnson has not confirmed or denied reports that members of his Downing Street team staged a party on December 18 last year when London was under Tier 3 restrictions. Pictured: Mr Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on December 15, 2020 to attend weekly cabinet held at the nearby Foreign Office to ensure social distancing

The clip, discovered by ITV news shows Allegra Stratton, then the PM’s press secretary, and Ed Oldfield, No10’s head of digital, rehearsing a question and answer session in the No9 briefing room.

In it Oldfield asks a question about ‘a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night’, to which Ms Stratton laughed and replied: ‘I went home.’

The footage was released after Boris Johnson had earlier refused to answer questions about the gathering, with questions raised over whether it breached social distancing rules in place at the time.

The damning role play

Ed Oldfield (PM’s special adviser): ‘I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?’

Allegra Stratton: ‘I went home (laughs)… hold on, hold on, erm, err…’

Ed Oldfield: ‘Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?’

Allegra Stratton: ‘(laughs) What’s the answer?’

Ed Oldfield: ‘I don’t know!’

Downing Street Employee (unidentified): ‘It wasn’t a party… it was cheese and wine.’

Allegra Stratton: ‘Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting.’

(Everyone laughs)

Downing Street Employee: ‘No! … was joking!’

Allegra Stratton: ‘(laughs) This is recorded. This fictional party was a business meeting… (laughs) and it was not socially distanced. Umm one more and then we’ll… one more. Anybody have any questions today?’

A third voice can be heard saying ‘it wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine’, before Ms Stratton added: ‘It was a business meeting … this fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.’

The footage was released after Boris Johnson had earlier refused to answer questions about the gathering, with questions raised over whether it breached social distancing rules in place at the time.

The Metropolitan Police has said it was aware of the footage and is considering an investigation into the alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations in government buildings last December.

Asked about it on a visit to a London prison yesterday, Mr Johnson would only say that all the rules had been followed at the time. Other ministers have refused to confirm if a party happened or not.

Sir Keir Starmer responded to the footage of Downing St aides joking about the party by saying that Boris Johnson needed to ‘come clean and apologise’.

The Labour leader said: ‘People across the country followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families, locked down and – tragically for many – unable to say goodbye to their loved ones.

‘They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same.

‘To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful. The Prime Minister now needs to come clean, and apologise.

‘It cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and another for everyone else.’

In response to the footage, a Downing Street spokesman said: ‘There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.’

The leaked footage was shot in the media room at 9 Downing Street, which was refurbished at a cost of £2.6 million in preparation for the televised broadcasts before the plan was ditched.

Parties were banned under Covid restrictions at the time. Mr Johnson has not confirmed or denied reports that members of his Downing Street team staged a party on December 18 last year when London was under Tier 3 restrictions but he has insisted that no rules were broken.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab reignited the party row yesterday after he said it would have been a clear breach of Covid rules at the time if Mr Johnson’s staff held a party in Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.

The PM yesterday insisted no rules were broken, after the Times reported that staff wore festive jumpers and were asked to bring ‘secret Santa’ gifts.

They were reported to have brought alcohol and food to the event said to have been attended by dozens of colleagues

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman has insisted ‘there was not a party’ but the Prime Minister declined to characterise the event during a visit to a prison in London on Tuesday.

‘What I can tell you is that all the guidelines were observed, continue to be observed,’ he told reporters.

Asked if he investigated personally, Mr Johnson said: ‘I am satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.’

The spokesman later added that ‘our position has not changed’ following Mr Johnson’s comments.

Last night, several families who lost loved ones over the Christmas period last year vented their fury at the latest developments in shambolic party saga, calling it a ‘betrayal’ of families who followed the rules.

Louisa Backway, whose father died of prostrate cancer after being unable to spend his last Christmas with his children and grandchildren, said she and her family are ‘furious’ after watching the video.

‘To know now that I sacrificed the last time that my dad could see his grandchildren, the last time that I could see my dad when he was well and himself, I can’t get that time back,’ she told ITV News.

Asked about the party on December 18 on a visit to a London prison (pictured) yesterday he would only say that all the rules had been followed at the time. Other ministers have refused to confirm if a party happened or not.

The PM yesterday insisted no rules were broken, after the Times reported that staff wore festive jumpers and were asked to bring ‘secret Santa’ gifts. Pictured: The PM returns to Downing St on December 30 last year

Mr Johnson, pictured in Downing Street on December 1 this year, has insisted all Covid rules have been complied with in Number 10

‘A nest of singing birds’ and a string of green gaffes: Allegra Stratton, Boris’ short-lived press secretary

Allegra Stratton has frequently been the story since she was brought in by Boris Johnson – with a string of gaffes and a description of No10 as ‘a nest of singing birds’.

The former Guardian and BBC journalist became the Prime Minister’s press secretary in October last year, when the idea was to hold daily White House-style televised press conferences.

But the plans were dropped six months later and she was given a consolation role as the PM’s spokesman at the COP environmental summit.

Since then she has regularly raised eyebrows, urging people to join the Green Party and advising against rinsing plates before putting them in the dishwasher.

She was even forced to admit she drove a diesel car because the infrastructure was not in place to switch to an electric vehicle – even though her role was to promote the Government’s green agenda.

In February, Miss Stratton was forced to deny reports of strains with the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie, saying: ‘That’s completely mental. Crazy. I love Carrie and would do anything for her. When we all go out for a drink she is just the best fun imaginable. We are all a nest of singing birds.’

She worked as political correspondent for the Guardian until 2012 when she became political editor of BBC2’s Newsnight.

She was Rishi Sunak’s director of strategic communications from April to October 2020. Her joining the PM’s team caused a bust-up in Downing Street that led to the departure of communications director Lee Cain.

Referring to Mr Johsnson, Louisa added: ‘I probably can’t really say what I think about him right now, because I’m just, I’m just so angry, so angry. And I’m sure many people are.’

Trisha Greenhalgh, a Professor in Primary Care, took to social media to recall her heartbreak as her mother died on Christmas without any family by her side.

Addressing her tweet to Allegra Stratton, the Oxford lecturer wrote: ‘On the day you partied, my mother called me, breathless and feverish. I didn’t visit. On the day you joked, she was admitted to hospital. I didn’t visit.

‘As you celebrated Christmas, she died without family by her side. I promise you, it wasn’t funny.’

Ministers are yet to explain how the alleged bash complied with the rules in place at the time, despite coming under pressure since an initial report in the Daily Mirror.

The newspaper said two events took place in No 10 in the run-up to the festive season last year, including Mr Johnson giving a speech at a leaving do during November’s lockdown.

While Mr Johnson has stuck by his explanation that rules were obeyed, several Cabinet colleagues have swerved questions about the party.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid faced questions on the issue as he faced his new Labour shadow, Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, in the Commons yesterday.

‘Residents in Ilford are this week being prosecuted for holding an indoor gathering of two or more people on December 18, 2020, and rightly so,’ Mr Streeting said.

‘Isn’t it time that the Government comes clean about the event in Downing Street on that same day, admit they broken the rules and apologise? Or does the Secretary of State believe, as the PM appears to, that it is one for rule and another for everyone else?’

Mr Javid replied only to say: ‘In terms of rules, of course they should apply to everyone, regardless of who they are.’

Policing Minister Kit Malthouse had earlier insisted he had been ‘reassured that all of the regulations were complied with’ as he was grilled over the Downing Street Christmas party row.

Mr Malthouse clashed with BBC Radio 4 Today programme presenter Mishal Husain during a fiery interview as she asked him to make sense of the Government’s position.

The Tory frontbencher said he is ‘not an investigator’ but he had ‘asked the question was all the regulations compiled with’ and he had been ‘reassured they were’.

It came as Downing Street said it intends to hold a Christmas party for staff this year.

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘We haven’t confirmed any dates at the moment. I think there is an intention to have a Christmas party this year.’

Boris Johnson has insisted that Christmas parties should go ahead this month despite the return of some Covid restrictions to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab reignited the party row after he said it would have been a clear breach of Covid rules at the time if Mr Johnson’s staff held a party in Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.

Health Secretary Mr Javid faced questions on the issue as he faced his new shadow Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, in the Commons this afternoon to update MPs about the new Omicron variant.

What were the rules on December 18 last year?

With just days to go until Christmas 2020, Covid restrictions were ramped up as the situation on infections and hospitalisations ‘deteriorated’.

London, and Downing St at its centre, were moved into a Tier 3 set of restrictions to fight the ‘exponentially increasing’ Covid case rate.

The following rules were put into force on December 17 for London following a review of tiers:

– No mixing of households indoors, or most outdoor places, apart from support bubbles;

– A maximum of six people in some outdoor public spaces (e.g. parks, public gardens);

– Events should not take place;

– People should avoid travelling outside their area, other than where necessary such as for work or education. Reduce the number of journeys where possible;

– Hospitality is closed, with the exception of sales by takeaway, drive-through or delivery;

– Retail, indoor leisure and personal care are allowed to remain open.

There was to be the saving grace of a five-day relaxation period over Christmas, but this was scrapped just days later after the situation continued to deteriorate.

Mr Raab, who is also the Justice Secretary, said he did not know the truth of the reports based on ‘unsubstantiated claims all on the basis of anonymous sources’, but if they turned out to be correct, then there would have been a breach.

He said that ‘if there was a formal party held, of course that is something that is clearly contrary to the guidance’.

Ms Husain asked Mr Malthouse this morning if a hypothetical gathering at the BBC last Christmas involving ‘several dozen of us, drinks, nibbles, party games’ would have been within the rules.

He replied: ‘Well, you are asking me a hypothetical question. I would have said to you you have to abide by the regulations.’

Mr Malthouse said he asked Number 10 ahead of his broadcast round of interviews this morning ‘whether regulations were complied with’ and ‘I was reassured that all of the regulations were complied with’.

Last week The Daily Mirror reported that two events took place in Number 10 last year in the run-up to the festive season.

The first was said to have been a leaving do for a senior aide held in November, when the country was in a second national lockdown, apparently attended by Mr Johnson who gave a speech.

The second was reportedly a staff party in December where, according to multiple reports, party games were played, food and drink were served, and the revelries went on past midnight.

The rules in place in the capital at the time explicitly banned work Christmas lunches and parties where it was ‘a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted’.

UK’s Covid cases spike again amid growing Omicron wave: Daily infections jump 15% in a week to 45,691 as Boris warns super-mutant variant IS ‘more transmissible’ with numbers doubling every two days

ByJoe Daviesand Connor Boyd Deputy Health Editor For Mailonline

Britain’s Covid crisis continued to surge yesterday in the face of the spiralling Omicron crisis, with cases increasing again on last week and Boris Johnson warning the super-mutant variant is more transmissible.

Government figures showed there were 45,691 new positive tests over the last 24 hours, up 15 per cent on last Tuesday’s figure of 39,716.

Experts believe Omicron now makes up to almost two per cent of all new infections, suggesting up to 1,000 people are currently being struck down every day.

The true overall toll, however, is just 437 because only a fraction of samples are analysed. Health chiefs have already warned that it is now spreading domestically in multiple regions.

Despite cases continuing to tick upwards, hospital admissions are flat (up 0.7 per cent on last week) but are expected to rise in the coming days in line with infections. Deaths appear to already be trickling upwards, jumping 13.2 per cent to 180.

The figures come after Mr Johnson told ministers at a Cabinet meeting yesterday that it was too early to tell if Omicron does indeed spread easier than Delta but admitted the preliminary data pointed in that direction.

Ministers have publicly ruled out resorting to No10’s Plan B strategy of working from home and vaccine passports, despite grim warnings about the threat of facing Britain in the coming weeks.

But Mr Johnson’s official spokesman yesterday dangled the possibility of another festive lockdown, insisting the Government would act ‘swiftly’ if needed.

But real-world data suggests the variant may be milder than other strains. None of the recorded cases in the UK — which are just a fraction of the true toll — have been hospitalised, Health Secretary Sajid Javid revealed last night, mirroring reports from doctors in the ground zero of the outbreak in South Africa.

Top scientists warn that even if it is not more lethal, the NHS will still face more pressure from Omicron than other variants because of the sheer number of people who will get ill.

Scientists expect booster jabs to give high protection against severe illness and death from Omicron, even if the variant makes vaccines much less effective at preventing infection.

No10 announced last week that it plans to ramp up the booster programme to 500,000 jabs per day and offer a third dose to all 53million British adults by the end of January to shield against the incoming wave. But the scheme already appears to be stalling with fewer than 330,000 delivered across Britain yesterday and just 380,000 administered each day on average.

Eminent epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector claimed infections of the highly evolved variant were doubling every two days. The above graph, based on MailOnline analysis, shows how the number of daily cases of Omicron could breach the 100,000 barrier before New Year’s Day, if that pace continues

No10 announced last week that it plans to ramp up the booster programme to 500,000 jabs per day and offer a third dose to all 53million British adults by the end of January to shield against the incoming wave. But the scheme already appears to be stalling with less than 330,000 delivered across Britain yesterday and just 380,000 administered each day on average. At the current rate, all eligible adults will not be boosted until February 10

Yesterday’s figures show Britain dished out 329,165 boosters yesterday, taking the total number of adults receiving a third dose up to 20.9million (36.4 per cent). At the current rate, all eligible adults will not be boosted until February 10.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, slammed the Government for being ‘stuck in first gear’ with the rollout.

He told MailOnline: ‘We want the Government to succeed, but the truth is they’ve been stuck in first gear on the booster roll-out.

‘Let’s hope they’ve finally got a grip and that the latest promises come to fruition. I’m encouraging everyone to get the jab as soon they’re eligible.’

The number of people dying with the virus took the UK’s total amount of fatalities within 28 days of catching the virus up to 145,826.

Separate figures looking at whether Covid was mentioned on the death certificate suggest the true number of fatalities now stands at 170,001.

Meanwhile, Dr Jeffrey Barrett, head of Covid surveillance at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said Omicron was likely to become the UK dominant strain ‘within a matter of weeks’ rather than months like initially hoped.

Scientists predicted just yesterday that it would take until mid-January for Omicron to outpace Delta.

Echoing No10’s official stance before Cabinet met, Dominic Raab claimed ministers were not looking to bring in tougher Christmas curbs, despite the sharp uptick in Omicron. ‘We don’t think Plan B is required,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘Why? Because of the success of the vaccine programme.’

Updating his Cabinet on the latest situation this morning, the Prime Minister admitted it was too early to tell if the super-mutant strain was indeed worse but ‘early indications’ pointed in that direction

In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent

This is the image that has sparked fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK’s booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England. It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet. The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike

Scientists expect booster jabs to give high protection against severe illness and death from Omicron, even if the variant makes vaccines much less effective at preventing infection.

No10 announced last week that it plans to ramp up the booster programme to 500,000 jabs per day and offer a third dose to all 53million British adults by the end of January to shield against the incoming wave.

But the scheme already appears to be stalling with just 290,000 delivered across Britain. And, on average, just 378,000 are being administered each day.

Mr Johnson later said now is the time’ for people to get a booster jab.

‘The booster programme is the fastest in Europe; I think we have done more boosters than any comparable country,’ he told reporters. ‘That doesn’t mean it couldn’t go faster.’

He added: ‘I would certainly say to people that now is the time to get it and, of course, from Monday, we will be contracting the interval so you go down to three months and that will lead to a big uptick in the programme as well.’

Scientists fear that Omicron will be able to trigger a wave of hospital admissions on par with the peak in January 2021, even if reports that it is milder than Delta coming out of South Africa are true.

The virus appears to be able to infect former Covid patients with ease and UK Government experts expect it to make existing vaccines up to 40 per cent weaker at stopping an infection.

Experts have warned that if Omicron can infect far more people then it could cause a larger surge in admissions, even if only a small percentage need to be hospitalised.

Asked whether Omicron could infect more people but make fewer people sick, Professor Spector told BBC Breakfast: ‘If early reports pan out – we don’t absolutely know this, we’ve got hardly any data in this country where we have high rates of vaccination – but if we assume that it is not more severe and possibly milder than Delta, but it’s much more transmissible…

‘So it means that perhaps twice as many people are going to pass it on from when someone gets it in a crowd. That’s going to be good news for the individual because we have less cases going to hospital, and partly this is due to our high vaccination rates.

‘But it’s also means that eventually you will get more deaths and problems because nearly everyone is infected or re-infected.

‘And so, this this means that for the country as a whole, it could be worse news but better for the individual. So it’s absolutely no reason for complacency.’

There has been a meteoric rise in Covid infections in South Africa in the fortnight since it alerted the world to Omicron’s existence on November 24.

Professor Spector, who runs the Covid ZOE symptom study, said that in around 10 days’ time the UK could have more cases of Omicron than some countries it had put on the travel red list.

He added: ‘The official estimates are about 350-odd Omicron cases, and because the current testing is missing a lot of those, it’s probably at least 1,000 to 2,000 I would guess at the moment.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid (left) warned the variant is now spreading domestically in multiple regions, with the official count now standing at 437 although none of those infected with it have been hospitalised. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab (right) yesterday claimed that ministers were not looking to bring in tougher Christmas curbs, working from home or vaccine passports, despite the sharp uptick in Omicron. Both ministers are pictured arriving in Downing Street this morning ahead of the government’s weekly Cabinet meeting

Mr Raab was more definitive than Boris Johnson (pictured running his dog Dilyn, a two-year-old Jack Russell-cross, in Westminster this morning) who yesterday refused to rule out tightening restrictions over the festive period, merely insisting that Christmas will be ‘better’ than last year

South Africa’s cases have skyrocketed since Omicron was first discovered. Last month, the country recorded 358 daily cases, compared to the 6,381 registered yesterday. The daily figure is the lowest since Tuesday, but is due to low testing rates over the weekend, with just 24,159 people swabbed yesterday. The positivity rate — the proportion of all tests conducted that are confirmed Covid cases — rose to a record 26.4 per cent

Some 175 South Africans were hospitalised with the virus, up 121.5 per cent on the 79 people admitted to hospital last Monday. The number of patients in hospital with the virus is at 3,517, up 51.1 per cent in a week. Pictured: graph shows weekly Covid hospitalisations

All 120 partygoers who caught Omicron super-strain at Norwegian Xmas work night out have MILD symptoms

None of the 100-plus partygoers who caught Omicron at a Norwegian Christmas party believed to be the world’s biggest coronavirus super-spreader event have fallen seriously unwell.

Doctors involved in tracing the outbreak say the infected are so far only suffering very mild symptoms like fevers, coughs, headaches and tiredness following the festive do on November 26.

Some 120 people who attended the Louise Restaurant and Bar in Oslo have tested positive for Covid, all of which are suspected to be Omicron but only 13 have been confirmed in a lab.

Seventy of the infected were employees of solar power company Scatec, who were celebrating their Christmas work night out, while the remaining 50 were other guests at the restaurant. The party was held in a closed room but guests reportedly mingled with other people in the restaurant after 10:30pm, when it turned into a nightclub.

‘Patient zero’ is thought to be a Scatec staffer who had recently returned from the company’s head office in Cape Town, where the variant is already dominant nationally. They tested positive the day after the party. At least one other employee had also recently returned from a trip to South Africa.

The Oslo outbreak made international headlines and was the first warning sign to Europe that the highly-evolved variant was viciously virulent and could outpace Delta on the continent.

But Dr Tine Ravlo, a public health expert in the Norwegian capital involved in tracking the outbreak, said that so far ‘none have become severely ill and none of them have been treated in hospital’.

The development lends weight to the theory that Omicron might be weaker than past variants, and is consistent with reports from doctors in ground zero of the outbreak in South Africa.

‘And we are expecting this to be doubling about every two days at the moment, so if you do your maths – say assumed it’s 1,000 at the moment, and you think it’s going to be doubling every two days, you can see that those numbers are going to be pretty (high) certainly in about 10 days time.’

But the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab ruled out any further Christmas curbs this morning as he hailed the vaccination programme as Britain’s way out of the Omicron crisis.

He told the Today programme: ‘We’re doing everything that can be done to tackle the risk that we face, and we’re doing it in the proportionate way that doesn’t create other risks and other challenges.’

Pressed on why the Government is not implementing Plan B, he said: ‘We don’t think Plan B is required. Why? Because of the success of the vaccine programme. We’ve got 118 million doses dispensed.’

Dr Barrett, director of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Institute, said that there were still many unknowns about Omicron that could determine whether more curbs are needed.

He told the Today programme: ‘The really critical question, of course, is how many of those cases of which there will likely be a large number will lead to severe disease?

‘And a number of people including Dr Fauci (chief medical adviser to US president), as you mentioned, have hypothesised that this variant may be more mild or less likely to cause severe disease than previous variants of the virus.

‘I think what we have seen so far in South Africa, for example, is possibly consistent with that, but it’s really much too soon to say, and the reason for that is that this variant seems to be able to infect individuals who either have been vaccinated or previously have been infected.

‘And we know that second infections or breakthrough infections of vaccinated individuals tend to be more mild. So the fact that so far we have seen not very many severe cases of Omicron, maybe because it is infecting these individuals with some amount of immunity and that’s good news that they aren’t having tonnes of severe disease, but I think it is too soon to assume that fundamentally Omicron is more mild than say Delta.’

Doctors in South Africa have insisted that most patients suffer only mild illness, with the US’ top Covid expert Dr Anthony Fauci claiming yesterday it ‘doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it’.

But British scientists, including the Government’s own, have warned against the narrative that it is a weaker strain, warning that it could put significant pressure on the NHS by virtue of the fact it can infect more people.

One mathematical modeller predicted there could be up to 3,000 hospital admissions per day in the UK in January if Omicron takes off domestically — compared to the 4,000 per day at the peak last year.

Dr Barrett reiterated that even if the strain is milder, if it is extremely infectious it could put significant pressure on the NHS.

‘The potential problem is that even if that’s a very small fraction, a small fraction of a really big number can still cause problems,’ he said.

‘It kind of has a set of mutations in its genome, some of which we’ve seen before, and others of which we’ve only predicted, to make it bind very tightly to human cells to latch on and infect them.

‘So that probably helps it transmit and it also has mutations in many of the positions which are known to be the places where antibodies that we make from vaccines for example, latch on to the virus.

‘And so because those have been changed, it’s highly likely that this virus will be less well neutralised by vaccines.

‘Again, we’ll see that with sort of laboratory data in a few weeks, but the speed at which it is moving through both vaccinated countries and countries with a lot of previous infection like South Africa, are strongly implicating that it can indeed evade some amount of immunity.’

He added: ‘I think we can now say that this variant is spreading faster in the UK than the Delta variant at the same time, and that’s something that I think was unclear until very recently. I am pretty confident that it’s going to take over (Delta) probably in a matter of weeks.’

It came as former prime minister Theresa May slammed the Government over its response to Omicron as she accused ministers of putting businesses at risk by ‘stopping and starting sectors of our economy’.

In the Commons last night, Mrs May said Omicron appeared to lead to less serious illness than other variants and the Government should be ‘learning to live with Covid’.

She added that an annual vaccine was the solution rather than ‘stopping and starting’ the economy which leads to ‘businesses going under and jobs being lost’.