Christmas gatherings could wipe out Covid gains, UK experts warn

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No 10 said to favour allowing several households to mix indoors over festive season

A Christmas display in a shop window in Leek, Staffordshire
A Christmas display in a shop window in Leek, Staffordshire. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Leading scientists have expressed concern at government plans to allow Britons to see extended family members at Christmas, with one saying that with vaccinations seemingly imminent, it would be tragic to throw away gains in suppressing the virus.

Andrew Hayward, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), questioned the idea of allowing older people to mix with relatives at a time of year when respiratory diseases are most prevalent.

Gabriel Scally, an epidemiologist at Bristol University, and a member of the unofficial Independent Sage group of scientists, was even more blunt: “There is no point in having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February. We need to think very seriously about Christmas and how we’re going to spend it,” he told ITV.

Downing Street has yet to fully decide either the regional tiers of restrictions that will replace the England-wide lockdown from 2 December or what will happen at Christmas, but it is understood the default choice for the festive period is to allow several households to mix indoors.

The idea is to agree unified rules across the UK for the Christmas period, and talks are taking place between Downing Street officials and the devolved governments.

UK cases

Speaking in a personal capacity, Hayward told the BBC: “My personal view is we’re putting far too much emphasis on having a near normal Christmas. We know respiratory infections peak in January, so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this.

“We’re on the cusp of being able to protect those elderly people who we love through vaccination and it would be tragic to throw that opportunity away and waste the gains we’ve made during lockdown by trying to return to normality over the holidays.”

Hayward also expressed worry that restrictions have been too changeable. “When policies are undulating between ‘stay at home to save lives’, ‘eat out to help out’, the tier system, second lockdown and proposals for an amnesty on social distancing, it’s a highly inconsistent message. Whereas in fact the things that people need to do to stay safe and to keep their loved ones safe are relatively simple.”

It is understood other Sage members share this view, and are worried about the consequences of pushing ahead with an easing of restrictions over Christmas. Government officials say they recognise the risks, but have to take into account the realities of how people are likely to act.

The former prime minister Gordon Brown has told the government it must start planning now for any change over Christmas. He told ITV that Boris Johnson must “put in the measures now, in the next few days, that make it possible for us to make a reasoned decision about what we do in the Christmas week”.

He said: “If he is worried that we can’t have a relaxation at Christmas, he needs to step up the measures now. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Boris Johnson have to get together and find a basis on which we can have common rules so that people can, if it’s possible, travel to see their loved ones in different parts of the country.”

After the current lockdown ends, ministers are set to replace it with a tiered system of regional measures, expected to be tougher than the pre-lockdown three-level one.

Public Health England has said modelling shows that for every day restrictions were eased at Christmas, they would then need to be tightened again for five days.

A YouGov poll on Thursday which asked people how many days of looser restrictions they would want if this was the case found that 40%, by far the biggest proportion, would opt for no days off from Covid rules.