The former prime minister Gordon Brown has urged Boris Johnson and the devolved governments to take tougher measures on coronavirus now to allow for family get-togethers over Christmas, saying the UK cannot afford to be “behind the curve” in its planning.
With Downing Street still debating whether it can ease restrictions for Christmas and what measures would be needed to make up for the resulting rise in infections, leading scientists said this approach would be a grave mistake.
Andrew Hayward, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), argued that with vaccinations seeming imminent, it would be “tragic” to throw away the gains made in suppressing the virus.
Gabriel Scally, an epidemiologist at Bristol University, and a member of the unofficial Independent Sage group of scientists, was even more blunt, telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “There is no point in having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February. We need to think very seriously about Christmas and how we’re going to spend it.”
Downing Street has said Johnson is “clear in his desire” for families to be able to see each other at Christmas, and there have been predictions that permission will be given for gatherings of several households over the festive period.
Brown told Sky News that if this was the aim, action was needed now. “I found being prime minister you’ve got to be two steps ahead of events. You cannot be behind the curve,” he said. “You’ve always got to be anticipating the next problem. And what he’s got to do, Boris Johnson, is say: ‘Look, if there is any doubt about whether we can lower the restrictions at Christmas, we’ve got to act now.’”
In another interview, with Good Morning Britain, Brown said the government must “put in the measures now, in the next few days, that make it possible for us to make a reasoned decision about what we do in the Christmas week”.
He added: “If he [Johnson] is worried that we can’t have a relaxation at Christmas, he needs to step up the measures now. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Boris Johnson have to get together and find a basis on which we can have common rules so that people can, if it’s possible, travel to see their loved ones in different parts of the country.”
But Hayward, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, questioned the premise of allowing older people to mix with relatives at a time of year when respiratory diseases are most prevalent.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: “My personal view is we’re putting far too much emphasis on having a near normal Christmas. We know respiratory infections peak in January, so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this.
“We’re on the cusp of being able to protect those elderly people who we love through vaccination and it would be tragic to throw that opportunity away and waste the gains we’ve made during lockdown by trying to return to normality over the holidays.”
Hayward also expressed worry that restrictions have been too changeable. “When policies are undulating between ‘stay at home to save lives’, ‘eat out to help out’, the tier system, second lockdown and proposals for an amnesty on social distancing, it’s a highly inconsistent message. Whereas in fact the things that people need to do to stay safe and to keep their loved ones safe are relatively simple.”
The current four-week lockdown in England is due to end on 2 December, and ministers are expected to replace it with a tough, tiered system of regional measures. A possible plan has been circulated to some departments but no decisions will be made before there is fresh data on the effectiveness of the national lockdown.
At a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday, Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England (PHE), said that for every day that restrictions were eased at Christmas, the measures would need to be tightened again for two days more. A subsequent statement from PHE said Hopkins “misspoke” and that modelling in fact showed that an estimated five days of restrictions would be needed for every one day of relaxation.
Johnson is facing anger from dozens of backbench Conservative MPs who have warned they will not accept restrictions being relaxed for only a few days over the festive period and that “freedom cannot just be for Christmas”.