The Government has suggested the UK can "keep Christmas on track" despite further cases of the Omicron variant in the UK.

Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant - widely known as Omicron - as it has around 30 different mutations, double the number present in the Delta variant.

Here's what health experts and Government officials have said about the Omicron variant - and how it may or may not affect Christmas gathering plans for 2021.

New covid rules announced

The variant has seen the Government introduce new Covid rules while the gap between second doses of the vaccine and booster jabs has been cut down.

Millions more people in the UK will become eligible for a third Covid booster as early evidence suggests higher antibody levels may protect better against the variant.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is now advising that all adults aged 18 to 39 should be offered a booster dose.

In further advice, young people aged 12 to 15 should be offered a second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, no sooner than 12 weeks after their first dose.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced tighter measures on mask wearing and travel over the weekend for England, reintroducing mandatory face coverings in shops and on public transport.

Universities, colleges and secondary schools in Wales have been told they should now wear masks indoors. 

Meanwhile Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned further restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 will be considered in the coming days.

What Boris Johnson has said about another lockdown

During the Government's Covid-19 press conference on November 27, the Prime Minister said he is “confident” this Christmas “will be considerably better than last Christmas.”

Questioned about the prospect for this year’s festivities at a Downing Street press conference relating to the new coronavirus variant, Boris Johnson said: “We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout and I think I’m going to stick with the formula I’ve used before, which is I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas ”

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Will people still be able to gather at Christmas?

The Government is “very much hoping that we can keep Christmas on track”, health minister Gillian Keegan said.

She told Sky News on Tuesday, November 30, that the position this year was much different to 2020 due to the vaccine rollout.

She said: “Of course Christmas is on track, and actually what everybody wants for Christmas is if you haven’t had your first jab, come and get it, if you haven’t had your second jab, come and get it, and if you haven’t had your booster, come and get it when you’re asked.”

Ms Keegan added her belief that the chances of having to isolate over Christmas were “pretty low”.

Professor Paul Moss, from the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), also weighed in on the Omicron variant.

When asked about the prospect of Christmas plans being called off on Sky News, he said: “I don’t think we need to worry too much about that at this stage… the measures that we got in place have a good chance of gaining some control here.

“The two ways that we’re adopting to try and control this are: one, in behavioural change to reduce transmission: the travel restrictions; more lateral flows; masking.

“And the second big factor is the immunity and we know that we may lose some immunity with this virus. So what is happening is we are boosting our immune levels to super-high levels with the plans that were introduced yesterday, and that should retain some protection.

“What we’ve seen with Covid is that things change very rapidly. And I think we need at least three weeks to assess this.

“We need excellent epidemiology and within the laboratory people are testing the resistance of the virus against vaccinated samples. So we will need that sort of time. And we will know a lot more before Christmas.”

He added: “You probably saw that the doctor in South Africa who initially identified it had seen relatively mild cases, which is very encouraging.

“However, you know, that’s a much younger population.

“It’s the elderly population, we need to worry about – in South Africa only 6% are above 65 years whereas we’ve got a much higher proportion.”

'People could do their bit'

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that people could do their bit by reducing the number of social contacts they have.

She said that even if our “vaccines appear to be effective, but we find that the variant is more highly transmissible, having lowish grade infection, but in very large numbers of the population, (it) could still be a significant impact on our hospitals.

“And of course, our behaviours in winter and particularly around Christmas we tend to socialise more so I think all of those will need to be taken into account.”

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