Scientists have warned that the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will cause a spike in infections, as experts encourage Boris Johnson to follow German chancellor Angela Merkel’s lead by rethinking proposals for the holiday.
Germany has announced a national lockdown that will close shops and schools until at least January 10 – with restrictions on social gatherings now relaxed for a shorter period than previously announced and the sale of fireworks banned ahead of New Year’s Eve.
The chancellor has made an “urgent” appeal to citizens to respect the rules and thanked health care workers, saying: “For them it will be a very hard Christmas.”
Politico reports that privately experts are advising Downing Street to follow Germany’s lead and to review the relaxing of rules over Christmas, pointing out that Number 10 will be blamed if cases rocket again.
“You can see two months down the track when we’re all looking back saying ‘why on earth did they do that?'” one minister told the Playbook newsletter.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said higher infections in the South East may be in part due to a newly identified variant of coronavirus which is growing faster than the existing one.
The discovery sparked fresh concerns over plans to allow up to three households to mix indoors from December 23 to 27 – with fears the country will “pay the price” in the new year.
David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on Covid-19, said the price of such a relaxation “could well be very high”.
Urging people to think carefully about their plans, he told Times Radio: “Just ask yourself, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year?
“It’s much better not to do it when there’s this kind of virus about.”
Professor Stephen Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, said: “Right now we are heading towards disaster.
“Given high levels of infection across the country and the increasing levels in some areas (such as London) it is inevitable that if we all do choose to meet up over Christmas then we will pay the price in the new year.”
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Danny Mortimer, questioned whether “these rules will be enough to protect the population in the short term”.
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty struck a cautious tone, saying people should not meet at Christmas just because they can.
He said: “The point of this (relaxation of rules) is for, under certain circumstances, families who wish to, to get together, but they really have to be very, very careful.
“And in particular, incredibly careful if they’re around people who are vulnerable, who are at very high risk of this virus.”
Tory former minister Stephen Hammond, who represents Wimbledon, told Newsnight that he thought there would be a “rethinking” over whether it is appropriate for families to gather at Christmas.
Downing Street insisted there were no plans to change the “Christmas bubble” policy despite the fears with a department of health official saying: “There are no plans to make changes to the Christmas rules. We all need to use common sense and behave responsibly over the Christmas period.”