Christmas gatherings would ‘throw fuel’ on Covid fire, Sage expert warns

Published: 19 November 2020

Post Desk : Britons are too focussed on having a “near-normal Christmas” and should be more concerned about their loved-ones’ health, a top UK scientist has warned.

Andrew Hayward, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that mixing over the festive period could “throw fuel on the fire” of the second coronavirus wave.

His comments came as ministers thrash out plans to allow people to spend time with their families. Reports suggest households might be allowed to mix indoors for a five-day period from Christmas Eve, and that three or four households could be allowed to form bubbles.

But Professor Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL), said people should worry more about the welfare of their parents and grandparents than whether they can sit down together for some mince pies.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday: “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.”

Pointing to the promising results published by the world’s leading vaccine developers, he continued: “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.”

Professor Hayward also acknowledged that the public had received “highly inconsistent” messages from the Government.

He said: “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.”

Fellow scientists have suggested that a five-day festive relaxation of measures would come at the cost of a potential 25-day period of tighter restrictions into January.

Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser to the Government’s Covid-19 response, suggested tougher restrictions could be needed either side of Christmas if curbs are to be eased for a time.

She told a Downing Street briefing: “We are very keen that we have a Christmas as close to normal as possible.

“That requires all of us to make every effort over this national restriction period and even in early December to get the cases as low as possible and to reduce the risk of transmission within households and between families.”

While she said scientists had suggested that one day of greater freedom required two days of restrictions, PHE later said Dr Hopkins “misspoke” and that Sage advice had referred to modelling indicating that for every one day of relaxation, five days of tighter restrictions could be needed.

She said she was hopeful the Government would make a decision “that will allow us to have some mixing”, but added: “Once we have got past the Christmas period, if there has been some release and some socialisation, we will all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again.”

With Christmas Eve falling on a Thursday and a bank holiday Monday on December 28, it is thought that ministers are looking at that five-day period to allow some sort of indoor gatherings.

Churches are likely to be allowed to hold Christmas Day services, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Boris Johnson wants to ease coronavirus rules to allow families to be reunited over Christmas and his Government has been working with counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to agree to a UK-wide approach.

His official spokesman said: “We are looking at ways to ensure that people can spend time with close family over Christmas at the end of what has been an incredibly difficult year.”

Ministers are also working out what new tiers should replace the previous system once England emerges from the current lockdown on December 2.

he Defence Secretary insisted that a decision on Christmas gatherings must be made as soon as close to that deadline as possible.

Ben Wallace told BBC Breakfast on Thursday: “The best time to make those decisions about how we can get together for Christmas – how we can get through this festive period – is when we have seen the impact of this lockdown.

“The best time for me to give you better advice, for the Government to make that decision, is as close to the 2nd of December as possible.

“I know some people would wish to know earlier, but if we were to do it now, and the facts were changing on the ground, we’ll end up having to change it again.”

Mr Wallace insisted he did not wish to be “the Grinch that stole Christmas” but he wanted to “protect lives”.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “Come December 2 the decisions will be made that we will try and get that balance right, but ultimately we will try and make sure we protect our NHS and safeguard lives.

“I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Christmas – I’m not campaigning for that – I would love all of us to be able to have a Christmas.

“But, more than anything, I want us to get through this Covid and try and get this country back to normal and I want to protect lives.”