Coronavirus: Christmas mixing guidance ‘under review’, No 10 admits
Christmas plans for millions were thrown into doubt as Downing Street revealed that the proposed relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over the festive period is “under review”.
And Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove is to discuss the planned easing of rules with leaders of the devolved administrations, after No 10 was unable to say whether they still have the support of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said that the UK government wants to press ahead with the relaxation, under which up to three households would be able to mix during a five-day period from 23-27 December.
But he was unable to give a date for the end of the review, after which families would be able to make plans with confidence that they will be allowed to happen.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to convene a meeting of the Cobra emergencies committee within 24 hours.
He promised his party’s support for any revision to the plans in the light of the spike in Covid-19 infections, particularly in London and the southeast.
Starmer said politicians should not ignore the fact that the pandemic had “clearly taken a turn for the worse” since the Christmas plans were first agreed by administrations for all four nations of the UK.
The move came as the editors of the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal published a joint editorial warning that the government’s plan for Christmas was a “major error that will cost many lives” and should be stopped.
And former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said ministers should listen “very carefully” to calls for a rethink.
“To go into the start of January, which I remember from my own time as health secretary is always the nightmare period for the NHS, with the same number of beds taken up by Covid as was the case in the peak of this April would be a very, very dangerous and precarious situation,” the Commons Health Committee chair told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
“The economic impact could be worse from taking our foot off the pedal for Christmas if it meant that we then had to go into another national lockdown.”
The PM’s spokesman refused to confirm or deny reports that ministers are discussing the options of reducing the number of days of relaxed restrictions from five to three or cutting the number of households allowed in a “Christmas bubble” from three to two.
But he said that guidance was constantly under review in the light of the latest data on issues like transmission rates, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19.
The PM’s spokesman said: “As we always have done during the pandemic, we keep guidance under constant review.
“But our intention to allow families and friend to meet up during the Christmas period remains.”
The comments came after health secretary Matt Hancock sparked fears that the period of relaxed rules may not go ahead as planned, by saying that “further action” could be needed if the decision to move London and parts of the southeast into the toughest tier 3 restrictions fails to stem a spike infections.
The chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, Mark Harper, attempted to ensure that any changes to Christmas regulations would be subject to a vote in the Commons.
In a point of order in the Commons, Mr Harper said: “Given that the regulations governing Christmas were voted on explicitly by this House, if there were any proposal to change them, then that decision should not be one just for ministers, but it should be brought back to this House for a vote to take place on it before Christmas.”
But deputy speaker Rosie Winterton responded that ministers “may well have the power to change the Christmas regulations without coming back to the House, as they have taken that power”.
Starmer indicated his concern over possible Christmas gatherings on Monday, telling the BirminghamLive website: “What I’d say to people is we all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to keep the infection down.
“That means, I think, for most of us staying at home if we possibly can for Christmas.”
He today wrote to Mr Johnson calling on him to convene Cobra within 24 hours to discuss the festive plans in the light of sharply rising rates of coronavirus infection, particularly in London and the southeast.
Sir Keir told the PM: “It has become increasingly clear over recent days that the tier system you introduced two weeks ago has failed to control transmission of Covid-19. Sadly, it does now appear that the government has – once again – lost control of infections, putting our economy and our NHS at grave risk in the New Year.”
Sir Keir added: “I understand that people want to spend time with their families after this awful year, but the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse since the decision about Christmas was taken. It serves no-one for politicians to ignore this fact.
“It is my view that you should now convene Cobra in the next 24 hours to review whether the current relaxation is appropriate given the rising number of cases. If you conclude with government scientists that we need to take tougher action to keep people safe over Christmas, then you will have my support.”
The Labour leader wrote: “This is a critical moment for our country. The tiered system has not kept the virus under control and has left us with precious little headroom. Put simply, if you take the wrong decision now, the ramifications for our NHS and our economy in the new year could be severe.”
Downing Street declined to give a cut off date after which people could be confident the Christmas arrangements are no longer under review.
Asked repeatedly, the PM’s spokesman said only: “We have set out the Christmas guidance and we have been clear around the need for people to remain cautious and vigilant throughout the Christmas period…
“As we have done throughout the pandemic we keep all advice under constant review.”
The spokesman said people should “try to keep numbers down and don’t do things that are unnecessary” to avoid behaviours that would spread coronavirus over the festive period.
“We have been clear that whilst we have published guidance that will allow families and friends to meet up it is imperative that people remain cautious and vigilant throughout the Christmas period.
“And remember that these guidelines set out what people can do, but what it isn’t saying is this is what people should do so it is up to people to remain cautious and vigilant throughout the period.”