NEWS
22/12/2020 16:27 GMT | Updated 23/12/2020 09:26 GMT

Ministers Ignored Own Scientists' Advice To Cut Christmas Relaxation To One Or Two Days

Initial decision to press ahead with a five-day lifting of rules has now made things "more difficult" for many, says public health expert.

The government’s decision to ignore weeks of warnings by its own scientific advisers to cut the Christmas relaxation to one or two days made things “much more difficult” for many people, scientists have said.

Boris Johnson was urged to cut the Christmas relaxation to one or two days as early as December 2, documents have revealed.

But the prime minister chose to press on with plans for a five-day lifting of rules, calling it “inhuman” to consider withdrawing them as recently as Wednesday.

As reported by HuffPost UK on Friday, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had also told ministers their Christmas plan could cause a Covid spike that would particularly hit the elderly.

“The total number of days spent mixing within that period may have a large impact on post-Christmas prevalence,” wrote Sage’s SPI-M-O (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational) sub-group in a “consensus statement” also signed off by Sage itself. 

“It is likely that visiting loved ones over the holiday period for one or two days would be considerably less risky than spending the entire time together.”

On Tuesday, Independent Sage – a panel of leading scientists led by a former government chief scientific officer – condemned the government’s refusal to shorten the Christmas window until the last minute.

Professor Martin McKee, a public health expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Independent Sage, told HuffPost UK: ”It is now clear that the risks of removing restrictions were known, several weeks ago, but were ignored.

“Moreover, by encouraging people to make plans to meet up and then dashing them so late, the decision to limit mixing at Christmas has been made much more difficult for many people.”

He stressed the importance for people to follow the new restrictions. “There is no doubt that it is the right decision and that people should rethink their plans to meet – not because the government is asking them to, but because it is the right thing to do for their own safety, that of their families and of their communities.”

On Saturday Johnson cut the relaxation from five days to one, and scrapped it altogether in London, the south-east and east.

The blame fell on a new, more virulent strain of coronavirus that has begun spreading rapidly in those areas, though is not currently believed to be any more or less deadly.

But the revelation of the warning from the start of the month adds to a chorus of voices that had urged the government to rethink far earlier, even without the new strain – raising the question of whether the last-minute chaos and heartache of cancelled plans could have been avoided.

A spokesperson from the government said: “As soon as the threat posed by the new variant became clear, the government took swift necessary action to protect the public by introducing further tiering measures.

“The latest changes announced by the prime minister are in response to the latest analysis of the virus. Our approach has always been guided by the latest scientific and medical advice and kept under constant review.”

While the extent of the new strain may not have been known before Friday night, health secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons more than a week ago that such a variant was spreading more quickly and could be the cause of increased infection rates in the regions now under tier 4.

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A 'Stop The Spread Of Coronavirus' sign seen in Covent Garden Market in London