Civil servants have blocked the word ‘Christmas’ from efforts to avert a winter Covid crisis, as they fear it would offend minority religions.
The ban, detailed in emails leaked to The Mail on Sunday, was revealed as Boris Johnson announced tighter travel restrictions and new rules on masks in a bid to limit the spread of the new Omicron variant.
Ministers had also planned a publicity blitz telling students to get tested before returning to their families using the slogan: ‘Don’t take Covid home for Christmas’ – but it was vetoed by Cabinet Office officials.
The move sparked a row over ‘wokeism’ in the Civil Service – which has been disparagingly nicknamed ‘The Blob’ by critics – with one Muslim Tory MP branding the ban ‘ridiculous’.
Last night, the Prime Minister threw winter travel plans into chaos by announcing that every traveller arriving in the country must self-isolate until they can produce a negative PCR test, and that anybody who came in contact with someone infected with the mutation must stay at home for ten days.
Masks will be compulsory on public transport and in shops, while experts will now consider whether to extend the booster vaccine to all over-18s.
Mr Johnson said: ‘I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position and we can lift these measures again, but right now this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximise our defences so that we protect the gains we’ve worked for so hard.’
The Downing Street announcement came after two people in the UK were found to be infected with the new variant – one in Brentwood, Essex, and the other in Nottingham. Both cases are linked and connected to travel in southern Africa.
It is understood that one of those infected was double- vaccinated: their swabs are being studied at the Government’s research laboratory in Porton Down, Wiltshire, and by the vaccine manufacturers AstraZenica and Pfizer.
As part of the attempt to suppress a winter spike, Ministers drew up plans for the ‘Don’t take Covid home for Christmas’ advertising campaign targeting students, to run from December 3 to 17.
But it is being held up by the Cabinet Office on the grounds that it is not ‘inclusive’ enough.
The Government plans to use social media ‘influencers’ on sites such as TikTok, to urge the 1.2 million students who will be travelling home at the end of the term to take a Covid test before they do.
‘The other option was ‘festive season’ which keeps the emotional motivation. We have gone with ‘Don’t take Covid-19 home for the holidays’ – as it links to school and university Christmas holidays. The alliteration with ‘home’ and ‘holidays’ scans well and is memorable’.
Another official then objects: ‘We don’t refer to Christmas as the holidays (that’s an Americanism). Please can we say, ‘Don’t take Covid-19 home’.’
Last night, Saqib Bhatti, the Conservative MP for Meriden, said: ‘As a Muslim, I find it ridiculous we can’t enjoy this special time of year. I look forward to showing my new son his first Christmas tree. The idea you can’t mention Christmas is completely ridiculous.
‘It’s a time to celebrate, whatever your background. It’s part of the British culture I love. It’s the celebration of all cultures that makes this the most welcoming country in the world.
‘I’m proud of that and proud to celebrate Christmas. The Blob needs to stop waging war on Christmas and get on with delivering for the British people.’
In other developments:
Mr Johnson said that the measures will be reviewed in three weeks. The new mask rules are expected to become mandatory within days.
He said: ‘We’re not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that, but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result.
‘We will require all contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of Omicron to self-isolate for ten days regardless of your vaccination status.
‘We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport.’