A Tory minister has failed to rule out the grim prospect of more people dying from a Christmas lockdown truce – as a top scientist warned it could “throw fuel on the fire”.
Boris Johnson is expected to announce a plan in the next two weeks that could see restrictions being eased for up to five days around December 25.
But that has prompted a backlash from some scientists who warned it could worsen the coronavirus epidemic in the UK.
SAGE advisor Prof Andrew 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.”
Fellow SAGE member Prof John Edmunds told ITV’s Peston: “I think that it would be prudent not to go wild at Christmas quite honestly, so I think that we will have to moderate and have a slightly disappointing Christmas, unfortunately.”
And Prof Gabriel Scally, a member of the unofficial Independent SAGE group, said: “It’s no use having a good Christmas if you’re burying friends and relations in the new year.”
Confronted with Prof Scally’s claims, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace today insisted he didn’t want to be “the Grinch that stole Christmas” and had to strike a balance.
But he did not outright deny Prof Scally’s claim that a loosening of the rules could lead to more people losing their lives.
Instead he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “He [Prof Scally] is right that if you don’t do some tough measures, you end up paying for it in the long run as long as we don’t have the vaccine.
“So what we know, and the PM said when we went into lockdown, he didn’t want to do it, but if you don’t do it, then we’ll all pay for it in a few weeks time and that is absolutely true.
“And that’s why I totally agree with your observation that we have to make sure, when we make the decision, we a make it as close to the time as possible so we have all the information to make sure the risk is minimal.”
Asked if he was saying we would see more deaths if we have five days with our families, Mr Wallace then replied: “No.”
But he immediately added: “If we don’t take correct measures at any stage of the year, whether it’s Christmas or any other time, the consequences could be severe when it comes to hospital admissions and deaths.
“Because we know about Covid that it is highly infectious, it spreads very quickly, and … unless you slow that transmission down, there are consequences for many people in society, often the vulnerable, often the elderly.”
Mr Wallace said any special rules will be set out “when we get towards December 2” to coincide with the end of England’s lockdown.
It comes after scientific experts sent advice to the government on how three-tier lockdown rules might be eased briefly around December 25.
And all four nations of the UK have been holding talks to ensure any approach is consistent across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Reports suggest people from multiple households, perhaps three, will be able to gather for three to five days under one roof.
But that could mean a month of stricter lockdown in return – as SAGE believes every day of looser rules could require five days of tighter ones.
Speculation has brimmed over after plans were leaked to the media.
Asked when people would know what they could do for Christmas, Mr Wallace said: “People will be able to know that about December 2. I can’t tell you now.”
Prof Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL), said the country was “on the cusp” of being able to vaccinate older populations and it would be “tragic” to throw away the gains made in suppressing coronavirus.
He also attacked the Government for “inconsistent” messages over what to do, saying it was clear that if people wanted to avoid Covid-19 they should not mix indoors.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Hayward told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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.”
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 Andrew Hayward from UCL replied: “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 said he believed “there is a cost” to gathering families together, adding: “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.
“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.”