Christmas covid lockdown: Family gatherings will 'throw fuel on fire,' warns top scientist

19 November 2020, 13:10 | Updated: 20 November 2020, 09:17

Pedestrians pass a COVID-19 sign reading "Stop the spread" as they walk past a Christmas tree in Covent Garden
Pedestrians pass a COVID-19 sign reading "Stop the spread" as they walk past a Christmas tree in Covent Garden. Picture: Getty

By Megan White

Mixing households at Christmas poses "substantial risks" to older generations and will "throw fuel on the fire" of the coronavirus pandemic, a top scientist has warned.

Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL) and a member of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the country is putting "far too much emphasis on having a near-normal Christmas."

He said it would be "tragic" to "waste the gains we've made during lockdown by trying to return to normality over the holidays."

It is hoped that households will be able to mix during the festive period, but there are fears it could lead to another spike in infections, and the country may need to have stricter restrictions imposed to avoid a third wave.

Public Health England say that for each day of any potential easing in the festive period, the country would need five days of tighter measures.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Professor Hayward said: "Mixing at Christmas does pose substantial risks, particularly in terms of bringing together generations with high incidence of infection with the older generations who currently have much lower levels of infection and are at most risk of dying if they catch Covid.

"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."

Asked if people should worry more about the health and welfare of their parents and grandparents than gathering together for a movie over Christmas, Prof Hayward said: "Well exactly.

"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."

Prof Hayward also said "there is a cost" to putting families together.

"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," he added.

"Whereas in fact the things that people need to do to stay safe and to keep their loved ones safe are relatively simple.

"Avoid, as far as possible, indoor close contact with people outside of your household, avoid crowded places and protect the most vulnerable by not putting them at unnecessary risk."

His comments came after fellow SAGE member Dr Gabriel Scally said Christmas would be a "dangerous time" and would allow the "virus to spread."

He said on Wednesday: "We need to think very seriously about Christmas and how we're going to spend it.

"It’s too dangerous a time and opportunity for the virus to spread."

He highlighted Public Health England's warning that 25 days of lockdown would be needed to make up for gathering over the festive period.

Dr Scally added: "There is no point in having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February."