After another difficult year, the Christmas season is finally upon us. In 2020, we missed out on festive socialising and gatherings with our friends and family, making this December feel more special. Yes, even the office Christmas party.
We didn’t realise how much we enjoyed company-subsidised drunkenness and/or three-course set menu team meals until we didn’t have them anymore.
Despite the excitement, however, there are a few concerns about festivities now that omicron has made itself known – namely that this new variant of concern could be a major party pooper.
Since cases of the contagious omicron variant have been found in the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson has announced a list of emergency measures aimed at stopping its spread, from making mask wearing in shops and on public transport mandatory to adding several countries back on the travel red list.
Health secretary Sajid Javid has told the public that they should plan for a “great” Christmas “as normal”, adding that it was “nowhere near” time to reintroduce social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance.
However, the current head of NHS Test and Trace Dr Jenny Harries said people should be “being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to” – comments that were contradicted by Johnson at a Downing Street press conference as he urged people not to cancel Christmas parties and Nativity plays.
For those keen to prioritise time with (older or vulnerable) family, this poses a new question: should we skip the work party altogether to avoid exposing ourselves – and by extension our loved ones – to Covid? As party season begins, here’s what you need to consider before you RSVP.
Is the risk of catching Covid greater at a party?
Probably, yes, says Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, but that doesn’t mean you should definitely miss it.
“At Christmas, respiratory viruses tend to spread less readily at the Christmas day event, as we actually mix less with people there than during a normal work or school day,” he says. “But Christmas parties in the run up to Christmas are a different thing and would certainly increase risk of transmission.”
This is because a work party is likely to be in a crowded, indoor space, two of the conditions that make transmission of Covid particles more likely when people breathe, talk, cough or sing. And there’s often singing at a party.
“Whilst for people who go out clubbing a lot, the risk may not be that much greater than normal, for people who would not normally do so, then the office Christmas party carries an increased risk, depending of course on what you get up to at the Christmas party and how many people are there,” he says.
Things you need to consider before your RSVP
Find out how many people will be at the party and what the venue capacity and setup is – is it all indoors or will there be open windows, good ventilation, and outdoor space? How crowded into the space will guests be?
What date is the party being held, and do you have 10 day period of grace after it and before you plan to see your family or friends for Christmas – in case you need to isolate after a positive test?
You should also consider your company policy on vaccination and testing. Will all guests have to disclose their vaccination status and/or a negative Covid test? Are you or someone you’re seeing soon after the party vulnerable? If you have any concerns, raise them in confidence with a manager or your HR team.
Dr Jenny Harries told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that people can stop the spread of the new variant by limiting the number of social contacts they have.
She added that even if our “vaccines appear to be effective, but we find that the variant is more highly transmissible...[it] could still be a significant impact on our hospitals.”
“So I think being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to and particularly going and getting those booster jobs which, of course, people will now be able to have at a three-month interval from their primary course.”
How can you protect yourself before the party
A few things, according to Prof. Hunter. One of those is getting fully vaccinated, which is increasingly understood to mean not just getting your first and second doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, but also your third booster jab.
“Although there is still a lot we don’t know about omicron, it still seems likely that the single most important thing we can do is get a booster jab when called, and that applies even if omicron does escape immunity to a degree,” he says.
Other control measure like face coverings will help, he adds, but they may not be sufficient to stop the spread of this new variant, he adds. Even so, wear your mask while travelling to and from the venue on public transport.
The new variant seems to be spreading more rapidly than delta, but we don’t know why for certain. “A large part is likely to be down to immune escape, but that may not mean more severe disease,” says Prof. Hunter.
What to do if you experience Covid symptoms
Previously, the government stated that people should be taking two two lateral flow tests per week, but the advice is now to take one before attending any event in a crowded indoor space, too.
If you do test positive before (or after) the event let your employer know and stay at home and isolate.
Of course, we don’t yet know how serious the omicron variant can may be.
“Early indications from South Africa suggest omicron may be milder, but it is too early to say for certain,” says Prof. Hunter.
“I do think it will drive up infection numbers at least for a while. How that translates into new hospitalisations and deaths will depend in part on how well the booster campaign goes over the next few weeks.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.