In Depth

Christmas not cancelled despite scientists’ pleas to Boris Johnson

Prime minister standing firm on plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions over the festive period

Boris Johnson looks set to shrug off warnings from scientists that his “Christmas gift” of a let-up in Covid restrictions for the country may come at too high a price.

The growing opposition to the plan culminated yesterday with the publication of a joint editorial by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and Health Service Journal (HSJ) urging the prime minister to think again about easing rules in England over the festive season

But “after a few jitters over the past 24 hours”, No. 10 is now “strongly ruling out the prospect of any change to the Christmas regulations in England”, Politico’s London Playbook reports. 

Following the science

In only their second joint editorial in more than a century, the BMJ and HSJ call on the government to “reverse its rash decision” to allow bubbles of three households to get together indoors over the holiday - or face a likely third wave of infections.

The government “is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”, say the journals’ experts, who add that “if our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be protecting the NHS”.

Easing coronavirus rules over Christmas “could wipe out almost all the reductions in waiting times for elective procedures achieved in the past 20 years”, they predict.

The editorial warns that unless the plan is axed, current projections are that “hospitals in England will have just short of 19,000 Covid patients on New Year’s Eve. This figure, derived by extrapolating a straight line from 5 December to 14 December through to 31 December, would be almost exactly the same as the 18,974 peak of the first wave on 12 April.”

Scientists from other organisations have reached similar verdicts - and delivered similar warnings to the PM.

The Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has “called for the government to scrap Christmas and instead introduce a midsummer holiday next year for Brits to celebrate”, The Sun reports.

The group - a “shadow” scientific advisory organisation working in tandem with No. 10’s official Sage group said this week that “if everybody chooses to take advantage of the three-household rule, there is a very serious danger of a third wave of the pandemic”.

Tory wobble

The chorus of calls from experts to cancel Christmas mixing has triggered concerns on the Conservative benches. 

“The prospect of the Christmas plan going disastrously wrong is being openly discussed by Tory MPs,” says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.

And those doubts have been bolstered by a YouGov poll of almost 4,000 adults yesterday that found 57% would rather not see the coronavirus rules relaxed. Support for axing the Christmas plan in order to avoid a spike in infections spanned across the political divide - and appears to be a view held by many Tory MPs. 

An unnamed MP told Playbook that they were being “kept awake at night imagining the nightmare of every other European country locking down much more severely over Christmas, while we don’t and end up with thousands more deaths”.

But not everyone in Johnson’s party is so dovish about the festive freedom, with one politician telling the news site that “the cancel Christmas brigade are another example of sneering media elitists thinking normal people are stupid and can’t look after themselves”.

“Every family across the country will be doing everything they can to protect their relatives,” the MP added.

Either way, the plans appear to be set in stone. A government source told The Telegraph that the prevailing feeling inside No. 10 is that “it would be wrong to change them this close to Christmas when people have made plans”.

Sources close to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggest similar plans north of the border will also remain in place for the same reason, the paper reports.

Christmas concession? 

In an apparent nod to the growing fears about the Christmas let-up, Johnson is reportedly planning a change in the official tone about household mixing over the holiday.

Downing Street is understood to be planning to warn against forming bubbles with elderly relatives during the festive season, in a policy that the Daily Mail dubs “think twice about seeing granny”.

The Times says the government is also preparing an advertising blitz “aimed at discouraging people from seeing relatives unless necessary”.

People are expected to be asked to “celebrate locally where possible rather than travel across the country”, adds the paper - a policy that may jar slightly with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ newly announced £3m bung to help provide 80,000 more seats on coaches to “get people to their Christmas bubble safely”.

As the row over the festive rules break rumbles on, a minister told ITV’s political editor Robert Peston that a key reason for Johnson standing firm is that he cannot “be seen to be punishing the North, where infection rates are significantly below recent peaks, because of a virus surge in London and Southeast”.

Then again, Politico’s Wickham is “not sure train-loads of visitors from southern corona hotspots is exactly much of a reward for the region”.

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