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Medical journals warn Christmas easing of Covid-19 rules in UK will ‘cost many lives’

Yui Mok

By Shaun Connolly and Harriet Line, PA Political Staff

Pressure is increasing on the Government to rethink the easing of Covid-19 restrictions over the Christmas period after two leading medical journals warned the move would “cost many lives”.

In a rare joint editorial, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal called for the “rash” decision to relax social distancing measures over the festive period to be scrapped.

They said that the Government “is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.

London mayor Sadiq Khan also expressed concern about the five-day “Christmas window” which would allow three households to mingle between December 23-27.

The joint editorial warning, authored by HSJ editor Alastair McLellan and BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee said: “When Government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing.

“But it is not, it is rising, and the emergence of a new strain of the virus has introduced further potential jeopardy.

“Members of the public can and should mitigate the impact of the third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months. But many will see the lifting of restrictions over Christmas as permission to drop their guard.

“The Government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn.

“It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave.”

The relaxation of regulations looms after the Government is putting London, much of Essex and part of Hertfordshire under the strictest Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said “all things were kept under review” as he urged people to show restraint at Christmas.

Mr Khan told Sky News: “I heard the Government say yesterday they haven’t ruled out further changes, I would encourage the Government to look at their rules over Christmas.

“What I say to the Government is: I’m not sure you’ve got it right, in fact, I’m sure you haven’t got it right in relation to the relaxations over Christmas.”

The London mayor denied he was adopting a “Grinch” approach to Christmas.

He added: “You’re not being Grinch at all. I think what you’re doing is following the science.

“And actually what we’ve seen across the Europe, and across the world, is those countries that are more effective at dealing with this virus having shorter more restrictive measures that help health and wealth.

“So look at Germany and the Netherlands; they’re not for relaxing the rules over Christmas allowing three households to mix with unlimited numbers.”

Mr Barclay said people need to “do the minimum” if they visit family over Christmas.

Asked if plans for the easing of Covid-19 restrictions over the festive period were being reviewed, Mr Barclay told Sky News: “All things are always kept under review.

“There is a balance to be struck that many families have not seen each other all year. It is important for people’s wellbeing, for their mental health. We don’t want to criminalise people for coming together as family over Christmas.

“But, it is important that people do the minimum that is possible. So, people will be making their own judgments.”

Mr Barclay insisted the easing of restrictions over Christmas was not a “tier zero” situation.

He said: “The position is not that we are scrapping the tiering system for five days – that we are letting people loose.

“What we are saying is, within the family three households can come together. That’s the limit of the flexibility that is being offered.

“I think it’s been mischaracterised as, almost, a tier zero, that we are scrapping restrictions in their entirety. That is not the case.”

The comments come after scientists warned that the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will cause a spike in infections.

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.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock 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.

Mr Hancock said people should be “extremely careful” about who they mix with in the run-up to Christmas if they are planning to see elderly relatives over the festive period.

Downing Street insisted there were no plans to change the “Christmas bubble” policy despite the fears.

The move came as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was demanding that local councils kept schools open and Government scientists were investigating the impact of the new strain of coronavirus.

Asked if schools should be kept open in England, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman told BBC Radio 4’s today programme: “I do believe it’s the right thing to do, rather than taking very short-term decisions to close…

“Arranging child care at short notice – we could be taking doctors, nurses off shift, out of vaccination clinics. Inadvertently shooting ourselves in the foot.

“It’s a difficult balance to get right.

“We need clarity, consistency, not last-minute decisions.”

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