People in the UK have been given the green light to mix with other households over Christmas, but experts are concerned easing up on socialising could lead to a third wave of coronavirus early next year.
Across the UK, three households will be able to mix in a bubble from December 23 to 27. But several experts have warned that going ahead with such celebrations could fuel a third wave of cases – and further lockdowns.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, told MPs on Wednesday he is “very nervous” about a possible third wave next year and urged the public to stick to current social distancing and restrictions.
The warnings came as figures released on Wednesday showed another 533 people were reported to have died after testing positive for Covid-19, while another 16,578 new coronavirus infections were reported in the UK.
Prof Whitty isn’t alone in his opinion, either. Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), previously told BBC2’s Newsnight the planned easing of restrictions over Christmas would be “throwing fuel on the Covid fire”.
“I think it will definitely lead to increased transmission,” he said. “It is likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths.
“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.”
Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton, agreed easing restrictions over the festive break could fuel a third wave of the virus. “For the festive period, we all need to think ‘just because we could, it doesn’t mean we should’,” he said.
And Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor and clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, adds there is a real risk of a third wave in January 2021 “if we relax too much at Christmas”.
“Most people in the country are still susceptible to the virus and any mixing will just give the virus a chance to spread further,” he tells HuffPost UK.
People will understandably want to see their loved ones after a horrendous year, however Dr Tang urges some restraint, if possible. “I agree that we all need a break and Christmas is one of the most important holidays we have,” he says.
“But just for this year, we should try to restrain ourselves, to suppress the virus as much as possible and keep it suppressed until we can roll out the vaccines at a large-scale later, to protect the most vulnerable first.”
“Just for this year, we should try to restrain ourselves.”
He urges those who can “tolerate a Zoom Christmas” to do so to reduce the transmission risk for those who can’t. “This will also reduce the virus spread for that bit longer, which will help all of us – and hopefully prevent a New Year third wave and possibly another national lockdown,” he adds.
Some experts, however, believe relaxing the measures slightly over Christmas might stop people from taking matters into their own hands. Professor Rowland Kao, an expert in veterinary epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, says there are “many reasons to be especially watchful over the Christmas period” with more people mixing and increased contact between age groups.
“However, counterbalancing this is the need to account for factors of human behaviour; in particular if there is a safety valve which allows some of the social interactions that are important to very many people in a controlled manner, it could prevent increased activity that would occur in a less moderated way,” he explains.
“In this sense it is a sensible approach, but the onus of course, is then on individuals to interpret those relaxations responsibly.”
It’s key that people really take great care when visiting loved ones over Christmas – and if so, he believes a third wave is “not at all inevitable”.