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So, Christmas is officially back on. Or rather, Christmas for large family gatherings from three different households is back on. The five-day “Xmas bubble” relaxation agreed by the UK government and the three devolved administrations will certainly be a test for both ministers and the public.
When it comes to the extra risk to Covid levels, official statistics over the next few days will be seized on for any clues to the ghost of Christmas past, present and yet to come. And ministers will be hoping the figures start to give a clearer picture.
While the number of daily deaths shot up (to 608, the highest since May 12), the number of daily cases plunged (to 11,299, the lowest for seven weeks). Even taking into account that the former is a lagging indicator and the latter a leading indicator, both stats felt rather out of kilter with recent trends.
The low case numbers may be a reflection of fewer tests processed over recent days, and everyone will hope the death toll is a quirk rather than an ominous new development. If tomorrow’s stats show a more steady decline in cases and a levelling off in the deaths, you can bet Boris Johnson and his team will be relieved the second national lockdown is finally paying off.
But the really interesting question is just how the public will react when the lockdown ends next week. It’s fair to say that in the summer many ignored Jonathan Van-Tam’s warning not to “tear the pants out of it”. Images of packed Bournemouth beaches, rammed EatOutToHelpOut August bank holiday restaurants and Brits-on-tour in Mediterranean nightclubs suggested the pants were well and truly ripped off.
Even in the few days before this lockdown, there was a surge in leisure and shopping that later sparked a commensurate spike in Covid cases. In Wales, first minister Mark Drakeford complained that two weeks after the end of its own firebreak, all the hard work risked being thrown away as 17 of his 22 local areas reported rises in infections in the under-25s.
Will the great British public heed Chris Whitty’s advice not to “go wild” next week, when pubs and restaurants reopen in some places? If they do, the lag in the system means that it won’t show up until the week before Christmas. Would Boris Johnson really want to execute another huge, screeching U-turn at that point?
The health and science select committees’ joint session heard Matt Hancock refuse to rule out another national lockdown. Health chairman Jeremy Hunt later told the BBC’s World at One that while some household mixing may be desirable over Christmas, “we do have to look at what the infection rates are doing a bit closer to the time”. Festive bubble trouble was clearly on his mind.
There is another factor too: the impact of the virus in poorer areas. Newsnight’s Katie Razzall reported that while Liverpool’s mass testing has been impressive overall, testing in the most deprived pockets was as low as 4%.
Jeremy Hunt also stressed that it was “essential” that ministers addressed financial fears of those in poor areas worried about isolating. He suggested the government fully refund anyone’s salary lost due to quarantine. The former health secretary (who is tipped by some for a job in the cabinet reshuffle) has had his ideas on mass testing adopted by ministers, so will his economic solutions be too?
Meanwhile, his successor Hancock unwittingly highlighted the country’s statutory sick pay problems when he told MPs it was time to end the UK’s culture of “soldiering on” into work with coughs, colds and flu.
Rishi Sunak is wary of the expense of a permanent rise in sick pay. But if he announces even a temporary, pandemic-specific rise in his spending review, at least the government could more plausibly argue it really is “putting its arms around” the nation. In a socially distanced way, of course.