People should not kiss anyone they do not know over Christmas to reduce the spread of Covid, government minister Therese Coffey has said.

Work and Pensions Secretary Ms Coffey said people should enjoy Christmas but: “I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe”.

She had been asked by ITV’s Robert Peston whether the public should limit socialising over the next few weeks.

She added that the government was working hard so we can all enjoy a “knees-up”.

In recent days, fears over the new Covid variant Omicron have led many people to question whether it could affect celebrations over the festive season.

The government has already strengthened Covid restrictions in response to the variant, with face masks mandatory on public transport and in shops, and all contacts of suspected Omicron cases required to isolate. All arrivals into the UK must also take a PCR test within two days.

Some businesses have expressed concern, with the hospitality sector reporting customer cancellations, while some firms are choosing to hold smaller Christmas parties.

Earlier this week, Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, said that people should not socialise “when we don’t particularly need to”.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people not to cancel Christmas events like parties – and said the government was not changing its guidance “about how people should be living their lives”.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid then said that people should consider measures such as taking Covid tests and wearing face masks when socialising – however, he reiterated that there was no need to call off Christmas parties.

Asked on the ITV Peston programme whether she agreed with Dr Harries or the government about social distancing this winter, Ms Coffey said: “I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe. Don’t need to do things like that.”

She added: “But I think we should all be trying to enjoy the Christmas ahead of us and that’s why we’re working so hard to get the deployment of as many vaccines as possible, and of course continuing to encourage people who haven’t been vaccinated at all yet, to come forward, recognising that we’re still trying to understand the impact of Omicron.”

After her comments were picked up on Twitter, she tweeted: “Don’t kiss with people you don’t know… Government working exceptionally hard with NHS and the Jabs Army to get boosters in arms so we can all enjoy a proper Christmas knees-up.”

Government scientists have said the impact of the variant on the UK is “highly uncertain” but it may require a “very stringent response” to avoid unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

NHS Providers said that some NHS trusts have asked staff not to mix in big groups in the run-up to Christmas, to avoid staff absences.

A total of 32 cases of Omicron have been confirmed in the UK so far – 22 in England and 10 in Scotland.

On Wednesday, the UK recorded a further 48,374 coronavirus cases and another 171 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test.

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