Downing Street under pressure to drop Christmas Covid rules easing

14 December 2020, 17:39 | Updated: 14 December 2020, 19:50

Restrictions are set to be eased over Christmas
Restrictions are set to be eased over Christmas. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Downing Street has insisted the Christmas relaxation of social distancing rules will go ahead despite increasing warnings that it will lead to a rise in coronavirus cases.

Number 10 stressed on Monday that the public should remain "jolly careful" over the festive period but said there are no plans to review the guidance after a "very difficult year for many people".

Concerns were mounting, however, of a fresh spike in Covid-19 cases from the UK-wide relaxation to allow bubbles of up to three households between December 23 and 27.

It comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced in the Commons that swathes of the south of England, including London and most of Essex, will enter Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday.

Following the statement, MPs Barry Sheerman, Munira Wilson and Tobias Ellwood all asked Mr Hancock to drop plans for easing.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said staying away from loved ones could be "the best Christmas gift" this year and chief medical officer for Wales Dr Frank Atherton issued a stark warning "to save lives now, don't mix with other people".

"Don't put yourself and your family at risk for the sake of tradition," she said on Monday.

At the Downing Street press conference, A&E nurse Ryan asked whether, with households mixing over Christmas, there would be a firebreak in January, and about plans to tackle increased pressure on emergency departments due to Covid-19.

Matt Hancock said: "It is incredibly important that people are careful and cautious, especially ahead of Christmas, and especially if they want to see loved ones Christmas, and that we are very vigilant about our own responsibility, as well as of course abiding by the rules."

On hospital pressure, the Health Secretary said: "On Wednesday, we will look as planned across the whole country to see which areas need to be in which tiers, so that we can try to keep this virus under control and suppress until the vaccine can be rolled out to enough vulnerable people that we protect life."

Mr Hancock also said: "I think it is important that all of us are cautious ahead of Christmas and very careful in terms of the contact that we have, especially with people who we know are vulnerable to this disease.

"It is our personal responsibility to make sure that we follow that."

Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said: "On Christmas, I think all of us know that Christmas is a period of greater risk.

"And the festive season more generally is a period of greater risk.

"But, at the same time, what we have to try to do, all of us as society, is trying to find this really difficult balance between doing things that are the least damaging we can achieve, whilst keeping the virus under control - walking that really narrow path."

But the Prime Minister's official spokesman said No 10 was not reconsidering the relaxation.

"There are no plans to review the Christmas guidance. What we've said alongside that is that the public should continue to be cautious," he said.

"We've been clear that it's a limited easement to allow families to bubble over the Christmas period after what has been a very difficult year for many people. But it remains important for the public to follow the guidance."

Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Government's coronavirus briefing that "just because we can visit people indoors over Christmas on a limited basis does not mean that we have to".

She advised people to "start thinking about reducing unnecessary contact" with others if they are going to meet loved ones over the festive period.

But the First Minister added: "This year I think it is the case that the best Christmas gift we can give family and friends is as far as possible to keep our distance and keep them safe."

Last week, England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned the public to be "very, very sensible" and not go "too far" over Christmas.

He told a Downing Street briefing that just because limited mixing will be permitted "that doesn't mean we should do things" as he warned of a "very risky period".

On Monday, Professor Devi Sridhar pointed to a surge in cases in the United States following Thanksgiving, suggesting plans should be shelved until vaccines are widely rolled out and immunity is built up.

The chair of global public health at Edinburgh University told ITV: "This is the worry about Christmas because once you enter somebody's home, you're probably going to get the virus if someone else there has it."

She added: "NHS staff are exhausted, they are begging people to be cautious, to not get infected, because they're the ones in the end who have to be showing up in hospital on Christmas Day, on Boxing Day and New Year's and actually having to take care of everyone that comes through."

Bristol University public health professor Gabriel Scally, also urged people to question whether it is sensible to meet indoors and said there should be "no hugging".

However, public health professor Paul Hunter said gatherings were a "tolerable risk", adding that shops and schools would be closed over the festive period and people will not be going to work, all driving down the risk of transmission.

"It does carry with it a risk but looking at the other side of things, January is generally a very bad month for people's mental health," the University of East Anglia academic said.

"If being able to meet up in as safe a way as possible with your loved ones over Christmas gives you that extra strength to carry on until we're able to get a lot more relaxed over spring, then I think that is a tolerable risk that I think we could accept."