Next week yet another set of coronavirus restrictions comes into force, a five-day relaxation to allow families to spend Christmas together after a bleak year of lockdowns and social-distancing.
Three different households will be able to mix from December 23 to December 28 and overnight stays will be allowed as part of the festive changes.
But is it a good idea? The latest data on infection rates suggests not – cases are on the rise in most of the country and more parts of the south-east are about to be put into the toughest tier 3 restrictions under which you can’t meet anyone indoors who you don’t live with, let alone two whole other households.
Official government data show there were 35,383 new cases recorded on Thursday (though some 11,000 of them were due to a glitch that delayed earlier reports from Wales) and 18,009 people were in hospital with the disease.
Warning the winter months “are always the most difficult months for people’s health and for the NHS”, he urged caution and said: “We’ve come so far, we mustn’t blow it now.”
The entire “Christmas bubbles” plan is now under intense scrutiny and an increasing number of people are calling for it to be scrapped entirely – including two of the country’s leading health journals, who published a rare joint editorial on Tuesday.
What do those on the front line say?
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) on Friday urged ministers to provide more clarity and warned the relaxing the rules over Christmas could lead to an “unrelenting tsunami” of cases as we enter the new year.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the RCN, said: “Nursing staff are telling me they will not enjoy Christmas knowing what awaits them in January. After caring for tens of thousands of positive cases, supporting families at their lowest ebb and even losing our own colleagues, a quieter festive period is not a sacrifice.
“Governments should be clearer about the risks – not just the rules – and people must make informed choices. The data and the science give cause for vigilance, not relief.
“This virus isn’t taking Christmas off and nor should we. 2021 is a year that holds so much promise – we have all lost too much in 2020 to set ourselves back now.”
Where does the government stand?
On Monday the line was that there were “no plans” to scrap the five-day Christmas pause in Covid restrictions, but Downing Street urged the public to be cautious.
Boris Johnson urged the public to have a “smaller” Christmas than the rules allow amid widespread fear the five-day relaxation of rules will lead to a third wave when the NHS is most under pressure.
The government had wanted a UK-wide approach to Christmas, but Wales will now legislate to restrict mixing to two households – and will go into a tougher lockdown on December 28.
All parts of the UK are issuing tougher guidance, with a joint statement by the governments of the UK, Scotland and Wales now essentially briefing against their own plans by saying: “The safest approach may be not to form a Christmas bubble.”
What have ministers said?
On Monday, business secretary Alok Sharma defended the Christmas freedoms in an interview with Sky News, saying families “come together” during the break.
“I think it is right and balanced and proportionate and that is not going to be changing.”
But an increasing tone of caution can be detected in comments from other senior members of the government.
On Tuesday, Steve Barclay said people gathering in Christmas bubbles should only do “the minimum”, warning the rules should not be “misinterpreted”. “We’re not going from tier 3 to some sort of tier 0,” he said.
He also said he would not be visiting his own parents over Christmas but would be seeing other members of his family.
Acknowledging that it had been a “very difficult” year for families and that many would want to meet up to celebrate Christmas together, he said: “I want to see my own parents over the Christmas period.
“I won’t see my parents over Christmas, but I will see my parents-in-law and those are the decisions many families will take.
“We’ve got to trust the British people to act responsibly and do the minimum that is possible for them in their family situation.”
Oh, and here’s what other ministers said when asked if they personally would be taking advantage of the government’s bubbles scheme. (Hint: most of them evaded the question.)
What’s Labour’s position?
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth urged Johnson and Hancock to rethink the measures.
He said: “This isn’t about cancelling Christmas, Santa will still deliver his presents, but is [Hancock] really telling us that allowing indoor mixing of three households across regions and generations for five days is sensible given the virus is raging with such ferocity at the moment?
“And the devastating tragedy is that those who will be most impacted by this virus spreading through the easing are those who will be at the front of the queue for the vaccine in the next month or two.”
MP Chris Bryant had earlier said in a tweet he thought the plan was “a mistake” and urged people to “take our own measures and decide to limit our contacts severely”.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has also called for the government to rethink plans, telling Sky News: “I would encourage the government to look at their rules over Christmas.
“What I say to the government is: I’m not sure you’ve got it right. In fact, I’m sure you haven’t got it right in relation to the relaxations over Christmas.”
Khan denied he was adopting a “Grinch” approach to Christmas, adding: “[It’s] not being a Grinch at all. I think what [I’m] doing is following the science.”
What do scientists say?
A number of leading scientists spoke out against the plans since the weekend.
Professor Stephen Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, said: “Right now we are heading towards disaster.
“Given high levels of infection across the country and the increasing levels in some areas such as London it is inevitable that if we all do choose to meet up over Christmas then we will pay the price in the new year.”
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Sage scientific advisory panel, suggested it “might be best to postpone meeting up with vulnerable relatives” rather than see them over Christmas.
He added: “We should remember that just because we can meet up with two other households, it doesn’t mean that we should.”
David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on Covid-19, said the price of such a relaxation “could well be very high”.
Urging people to think carefully about their plans, he told Times Radio: “Just ask yourself, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year?
“It’s much better not to do it when there’s this kind of virus about.”
Where does the World Health Organisation stand?
The WHO issued a strongly-worded appeal this week to European nations, asking citizens to stay home over the festive period.
The organisation’s regional director for Europe Dr Hans Kluge said: “There remains a difference between what you are being permitted to do by your authorities and what you should do.”
In a statement, he continued: “We have a few more months of sacrifice ahead and can behave now in a way that collectively we are proud of. When we look back at these unprecedented times, I hope we all felt we acted with a spirit of shared humanity to protect those in need.”
Dr Kluge said the pandemic’s “devastation” had hit communities across Europe.
“Covid-19 has forced families and communities apart, bankrupted businesses, and deprived people of opportunities that a year ago were taken for granted,” he said.
“From anxieties around virus transmission, the psychological impact of lockdowns and self-isolation, to the effects of unemployment, financial worries and social exclusion – the mental health impact of the pandemic will be long term and far reaching.
“What has resulted is a growing mental health crisis in Europe.”
The health journals
In only their second joint editorial in 100 years, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and Health Service Journal (HSJ) called on the prime minister to change tack because of rising cases of coronavirus across parts of England.
They both warned that hospital bed capacity risked being overwhelmed if there was a Christmas relaxation, calling on the government to “reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing [...] in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave”.
Crucially, the journals say a third wave would hit non-Covid treatments hardest, as it “could wipe out almost all the reductions in waiting times for elective procedures achieved in the past 20 years”.