Attempts by the government to allow families to mix over Christmas pose “substantial risks”, according to a scientific adviser.
Reports on Wednesday suggested the government was planning on easing restrictions for up to five days from Christmas Eve, allowing families to spend time together over the festive period.
But scientists have warned that England may face another month-long lockdown in January if COVID rules are temporarily relaxed at Christmas.
Now, Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL) and a member of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there was “too much emphasis on having a near-normal Christmas”.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he 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.
“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.”
On Wednesday, a senior health official said any socialising would likely have to be followed by “very responsible” behaviour and a reduction in contacts again.
A five-day easing, where several household bubbles would be able to mix, could mean a potential 25-day period of tighter measures into January if the government follows advice from Sage.
With the lockdown still in place, the government has said that plans for Christmas would not be revealed until national restrictions end on 2 December.
When asked when people would know what they would be allowed to do for Christmas this year, defence secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News: “People will be able to know that about 2 December. I can’t tell you now.”
He added: “As we get closer towards 2 December we’ll know more about the impact of this lockdown.
“Our aims are all the same. We’d like to see our families at Christmas, we’d like to mix with each other as much as possible, but also we have to remember this is incredibly infectious and nasty disease. There are lots of people, I’m afraid, still dying of COVID.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser to the government’s COVID-19 response, suggested on Wednesday that tougher restrictions could be needed either side of Christmas if curbs are to be eased.
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.”
Watch: COVID easing at Christmas ‘would mean tougher restrictions’
She said scientists had suggested that one day of greater freedom required two days of restrictions – but Public Health England (PHE) later said Hopkins “misspoke” and that Sage advice had in fact referred to modelling indicating that for every one day of relaxation, five days of tighter restrictions could be needed.
Hopkins 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 28 December, it is thought that ministers are looking at that five-day period to allow some sort of indoor gatherings.
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.”
But Sage member Professor John Edmunds said normal socialising activity around Christmas “all unfortunately carries a risk” and people should probably prepare for a “slightly disappointing Christmas”.
He 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.”
“I think we might be able to negotiate it without going into another lockdown... [but] I still think we will have to have restrictions in place.”
SAGE adviser Professor John Edmunds says he hopes the UK will not need more lockdowns after Christmas. #Peston pic.twitter.com/Sq1NpCx3AY
— Peston (@itvpeston) November 18, 2020
England’s national lockdown officially ends on 2 December and ministers are now working out a new regional tier system to replace the previous one after scientists said the previous Tier 1 had very little effect on reducing coronavirus cases.
The latest reproduction rate – the R value – of the virus is still above one, according to most recent estimates, meaning the disease is still spreading.
A further 529 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, the Government said, bringing the UK total to 53,274.
There had been a further 19,609 lab-confirmed cases in the UK as of 9am on Wednesday, taking the total to 1,430,341.
Watch: 8 exceptions to the second lockdown in England