COVID-19: 'Muddled thinking' and 'recipe for regret' - PM's Christmas bubble plans under fire

·4-min read

Scientists have warned that Boris Johnson's plans to ease coronavirus restrictions over Christmas risk "throwing fuel on the COVID fire".

For five days between 23 and 27 December, people across the UK will be able to mix within a Christmas bubble of up to three households - but only in a private home, a place of worship or outdoor public spaces.

Restrictions will remain for pubs, restaurants and the wider hospitality sector, which described the rules as likely to "inflict unnecessary pain and irreversible damage".

Scientists and doctors were also unhappy with the Christmas plans, with British Medical Association UK council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul saying: "This virus does not discriminate against certain days of the year.

"Relaxing the rules on indoor mixing for a five-day period will almost certainly carry the risk of a rise in infection rate and possibly more hospitalisation and deaths, adding further pressure on the health service, doctors and NHS staff."

Dr Nagpaul said it is "absolutely vital" people take safety precautions if mixing with other households, such as ventilating rooms and limiting physical contact when masks are not worn.

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), told the BBC that the easing of restrictions over Christmas was "throwing fuel on the COVID fire".

"We are still in a country where we have got high levels of infection with COVID, particularly in young people. Bringing them together for hours, let alone days, with elderly relatives, I think, is a recipe for regret for many families.

"With the vaccine on the way, if we are not very careful over Christmas we are really in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on this one."

The chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association said the Christmas plans "make a mockery of the extra restrictions being placed on pubs and the economic devastation they are facing this Christmas".

Emma McClarkin asked: "How can it be that pubs cannot properly open while households can mix in private settings?

"It seems the government has chosen to inflict unnecessary pain and irreversible damage on our sector without publishing evidence alongside these decisions."

Watch: No-deal Brexit could disrupt medicines and vaccine delivery, industry warns

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, added: "For the government to exclude these businesses in these new rules demonstrates muddled thinking and will cause the sector yet more harm coming so soon after the announcement of the new tier restrictions."

And Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said the government had "ripped the vague remnants of Christmas spirit from the hands of many businesses within the sector".

He warned: "The government has simply got this wrong. It is an appalling misjudgement, at such an important time of year for everyone."

Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Dr Liam Fox also sounded a note of scepticism.

Speaking to Sky News, the ex-international trade secretary said that to "change behaviour because of Christmas wouldn't be a science-based approach".

"I can understand why everybody wants it. And if we do do it, I think we have to apply it in a consistent way," he told Kay Burley.

"For example, why would it be that three households can meet in a private home but not in a spaced environment of a pub or a restaurant?

"So I think MPs will be looking to see if there is consistency in those regulations. Not least because the hospitality sector has been so badly hit."

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Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson said the relaxation of rules needed to be "managed carefully" as the virus was still a "deadly threat".

She told Sky News it was "perfectly understandable" that people "want the opportunity to see family and friends" after a very tough year - but that the government should "communicate that message of what's expected of us clearly".

Government figures showed a further 608 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, bringing the UK total to 55,838.

A further 11,299 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were also reported, the lowest figure since early October.

Meanwhile, the prime minister could face a backlash from some of his own MPs over planned measures from 2 December, when England's current lockdown ends.

Many MPs are reportedly worried that most of the country will be under Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions, ahead of official confirmation on Thursday.

A government source has told Sky News: "I would not be surprised if no areas [in England] ended up in Tier 1."

According to the Daily Mail, 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady is among those who are unhappy - with the newspaper reporting that he is "inclined" to oppose the measures in a vote next week, as he is concerned the economic damage might leave a "legacy we could be living with for years to come".

Watch: Three household bubble and travel rules eased under Christmas plan being discussed