Matt Hancock has signalled people should self-isolate before seeing elderly relatives at Christmas as he defended moves to relax pandemic restrictions over the festive period.
The health secretary came under scrutiny at a Downing Street press conference over the five-day relaxation as Covid-19 cases are surging across the UK, and was asked whether the lighter rules were going ahead “at any cost”.
The announcement moves almost 10.8 million people into Tier 3, with 61% of England’s population under the toughest restrictions from Wednesday.
Acknowledging Christmas gatherings could put lives at risk, Hancock said: “The best thing you can do if you want to see elderly relatives at Christmas is to be extremely careful now about who you see.”
The Cabinet minister refused to spell out the circumstances that would lead to a U-turn on relaxing Covid-19 restrictions, repeatedly suggesting decisions were a “personal responsibility”.
Asked about Christmas, Hancock said: “I think it is important that all of us are cautious ahead of Christmas and very careful in terms of the contact that we have, especially with people who we know are vulnerable to this disease.
“It is our personal responsibility to make sure that we follow that.”
Between December 23 and 27, families in the UK will be allowed to form a three-household bubble to celebrate Christmas – a policy announced by the government at the end of November.
But there has since been a rise in Covid-19 infections, with the number of people testing positive week-on-week jumping by 19% to 126,263 between December 7 and 13.
The health secretary sidestepped a question on whether there were any circumstances in which the Christmas relaxation of Covid rules would be re-assessed.
Hancock said: “Our messages around Christmas are really clear. We understand why people want to see their loved ones, especially at this time of year, especially after this year.
“But it must be done in a way that is careful and responsible, and I think people understand that too.
“If you are planning to meet up with loved ones at Christmas, then being careful now, two weeks ahead, making sure you minimise the chance of both catching the disease and passing it on is the right thing to do – actually, that’s the right thing to do all the time.”
Despite this, Hancock also warned of “further action” to crackdown on the spread of Covid-19.
He said: “We know from experience that the best thing to do in the face of this virus is to act fast, not to wait to see its growth continue – and we do not rule out further action.”
Meanwhile, a member of the Independent Sage group has urged ministers must make it clear that just because the public are allowed to form Christmas social bubbles, it does not mean they should.
The warning from Professor Christina Pagel – director of UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit – who told HuffPost UK: “I think what the government needs to do now – given that it has already said what the rules are for Christmas and people have made plans accordingly – is to give the messaging that, just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.”
The government is also not doing enough to inform people about how to safely socialise over the festive period, she said.
“That messaging just isn’t there and that is what really worries me – that people have got the message that because it’s allowed, it’s okay and they should do it.
“I think the government really has to say: ‘You know what, it’s allowed, but we do not recommend that you do it’.”
Pagel said the news of surging cases made it “even more important” that people consider the safety of their Christmas plans.
“It just makes it even more important, especially for people who are in the south who are thinking of visiting family out of here,” she said.
“Because if it is concentrated in the south east and London, the last thing you want is to then transport it to everywhere across the country. And that’s how it would get there – by person-to-person interaction. Covid can’t travel on a train by itself.”
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – the group of scientists that advises the government – has said that if people choose to socialise at Christmas, they can minimise the risk of spreading the virus by meeting outdoors, limiting the amount of time they spend together and by not staying at each others’ homes overnight.
Meanwhile, Independent Sage has issued its own three-point plan, suggesting that for most families, it would be better to plan alternative “Christmas” celebrations for the summer.
But the prime minister’s official spokesperson said Number 10 was not reconsidering the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over the festive period.
“There are no plans to review the Christmas guidance,” he told reporters on Monday. “What we’ve said alongside that is that the public should continue to be cautious.
“We’ve been clear that it’s a limited easement to allow families to bubble over the Christmas period after what has been a very difficult year for many people. But it remains important for the public to follow the guidance.”