Despite many having bought tickets to travel and ordered giant turkeys, a Cabinet minister proposed putting off their plans for big gatherings, saying: “Easter can be the new Christmas.” Robert Jenrick said that every family should now have 11th hour “conversations round the breakfast table” and decide if it is really safe to expose grandparents to young people who might be carrying the virus.
Boris Johnson also urged people to “exercise extreme caution” while celebrating Christmas. It came as he told MPs that the four UK nations have agreed to continue “in principle” with the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas.
The Government rejected calls to cancel the Christmas relaxation of the Covid laws, despite fresh warnings from scientists and doctors that infections are bound to increase.
It means “bubbles” of up to three households are permitted to sit down for a festive meal if they wish in a five-day period starting December 23.
Fresh advice puts the onus on families to decide what is safe for their loved ones. That includes considering if a Christmas with elderly relatives is sensible, as well as staying local if possible.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said she would have preferred a U-turn “to avoid the preventable deaths that we’re going to have in January as a result of this”. As a fall-back, Christmas celebrations should be held in the “most modest way possible”.
Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) which advises the Government, said people faced the individual risk of infecting loved ones with Covid and of contributing towards the possibility of the NHS being “overrun”. He told BBC’s Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m not going to see my mother over Christmas. We decided that mutually but I may well see one of my children.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham told Sky News: “I’m hearing ministers now this morning using the phrase ‘Easter is the new Christmas’. They are really now at risk of getting very, very confused...this has to be cleared up today.”
Formal talks with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were resumed, amid speculation that travel between some countries or regions may be restricted. Although the Westminster government will not change the laws for England, a source said the four UK nations may end up with slightly different approaches.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said 137,897 people have received the jab so far. He called it a “really good start”, though at least 800,000 shots of the Pfizer vaccine have been delivered.
The confusing picture, with seven days to go before the relaxation of the law, follows two leading medical journals saying gatherings would “cost many lives”. The British Medical Association echoed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in demanding an urgent review.
Mr Jenrick said his own parents, in their eighties, had decided to cancel plans to attend a big get-together with his family. He said others could consider doing the same, especially as the Covid-19 vaccine will be made available to older people in the next few months.
“Why not wait and get the family back together in 2021?” he asked.
Mr Jenrick said the Christmas freedoms would stay available because “you can’t legislate for every eventuality”. He went on: “People do need to decide and in my experience people are more than capable of coming to those sensible judgments themselves.”
He pointed to the “very serious consequences” in the US where there was a spike after families gathered for traditional Thanksgiving turkey meals.
He told Sky: “This is a virus that thrives on social interaction, so bringing more people together, even over this short period of time, is not cost-free. It will have consequences in terms of increasing the rate. It will rise.”
But he insisted: “I think it’s right that we leave that to individual families to come to a judgement.” Challenged on Today if the decision to keep the Christmas laws intact was a political fudge, he replied: “Absolutely not. We have consistently made difficult decisions throughout the pandemic.”
He proposed that families could meet virtually at Christmas, highlighting that “other faiths, for example, have done it, whether it’s for Diwali, Ramadan, Passover, and made a success of it.”
With cases soaring in London, Professor Medley said: “The major driver for the amount of transmission that occurs over Christmas is the prevalence going into that period.” The expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explained that people faced the individual risk of infecting loved ones with Covid and of contributing towards the possibility of the NHS being “overrun” in coming weeks, stressing “we don’t have much headroom”.