Further restrictions may be needed before and after Christmas if coronavirus measures are loosened over the festive period, government scientific advisers warned on Wednesday, as ministers prepare to outline new rules in England ahead of the due end of lockdown on December 2.
Prof Susan Hopkins, an infectious diseases adviser at Public Health England, said the public may need to reduce unnecessary social contact throughout the festive period, with modelling from the government’s scientific advisory group Sage indicating that for “every day” restrictions are lifted, two days of tighter restrictions would be needed.
This figure was later corrected by Public Health England, revealing that five days of stricter measures would be needed for each day of lifted restrictions.
Speaking in a televised Downing Street conference, Prof Hopkins said: “Coming into Christmas we need to be very careful about the number of contacts that we have, to reduce transmission before Christmas and get our cases as low as possible.
“Once we have got past the Christmas period — if there has been a release and some socialisation — we will all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again,” she said.
Next week, the government will outline England’s new coronavirus measures, with MPs expected to vote on the legislation in Parliament.
Earlier on Wednesday, Downing Street signalled that rules may be relaxed throughout the Christmas period. The No 10 spokesperson said: “We accept it won’t be a normal Christmas but . . . the PM has been clear in his desire for families to be able to see each other.”
However, ministers have been quick to state that discussions surrounding measures after December 2 are continuing.
When questioned on government plans for Christmas, business secretary Alok Sharma said it was too early to provide clarity on the matter. “What we have said is that we will come out of national restrictions in England on the 2nd of December. We will then go into the tiering system. We will set out closer to the 2nd of December how precisely this will work”.
The minister told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I think it’s too early to talk about precisely where we might be at Christmas. But of course, I want to have as normal a Christmas as possible. I want to have members of my family around that Christmas table.”
The scientific advisers also told journalists at Wednesday’s briefing that while they had sent advice to the government over the weekend they were unaware of what final decisions had been made.
A further 529 coronavirus deaths were recorded in the UK on Wednesday, while the number of Covid-19 hospital inpatients in England has increased from under 2,000 on August 1 to 14,313 at the beginning of November
However, the latest figures suggest that the UK’s R number has fallen to between 1.0 and 1.2, meaning that for every 10 infectious people another 12 will have the infection passed on to them.
Prof Angela McLean, deputy chief scientific adviser, also added that if the R number remained above 1 towards the end of this week, that would not necessarily mean national lockdown measures had not been effective.
While the R rate was based on the most up-to-date information available, there was a slight time delay, she noted, adding: “The way we estimate R is very dominated by lagging indicators . . . People going into hospital now are people who got infected weeks ago.”
Conservative backbenchers have already indicated that any return to further restrictions may be met with fierce opposition when the measures are put forward for a vote next week.
In response to the latest Downing Street briefing, chair of the Covid Recovery Group, Conservative MP Mark Harper argued that the country could not “keep living under a cycle of lockdowns”.
Meanwhile, Steve Baker, Tory MP for Wycombe and deputy chair of the rebel group, said: “Lockdowns and restrictions cause immense economic, social and non-Covid health damage and we’ve got to start talking about those so that we know the restrictions we’re being asked to live under are not causing more harm than good to our citizens.”