Boris Johnson has urged people to “think carefully” after it was confirmed that three households will be able to form a Christmas “bubble” from December 23 to 27 and told families they must make a “personal judgment” about the risks of coronavirus to vulnerable loved ones. The UK Government and devolved administrations agreed to the joint plan to relax social distancing rules over the festive period, allowing friends and family to hug for the first time in months.
But a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned easing the measures could lead to a third wave of the pandemic.
And another said the risks people take at Christmas could lead to more hospital admissions in January and potentially another lockdown.
Professor Graham Medley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions at Christmas could lead to more people being admitted to hospital and further lockdown measures in the new year.
Prof Medley said: “I think we’re in a process now whereby the population’s risk of filling up the NHS is really being passed down to us as individuals.
“For other diseases like flu or hepatitis B, the Government doesn’t get involved in helping or determining what our risk is and it is really, I think, for this Christmas up to us as individuals and families to think about what our risks are and how we are going to mitigate them.
“I think it is inevitable that if a lot of people do take that risk, even if it is a small risk, then we will end up with a lot of people in hospital and potentially having to take measures in January to lock down again.”
Prof Medley advised people to isolate before visiting relatives, to consider the amount of time they plan to spend with them, to remain “completely faithful” to any social bubble arrangements and to weigh up the risk of spreading COVID to those who are vulnerable.
But he warned social interactions come with risks that “could play out very badly for some people”.
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Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, and a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), warned easing measures would lead to increased transmission and a possible “third wave” of infection.
He said: “Effectively what this will be doing is throwing fuel on the COVID fire.
“With the vaccine on the way, if we are not very careful over Christmas we are really in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on this one.”
The British Medical Association in England also warned easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will “almost certainly” lead to a rise in the infection rate.
Mr Johnson acknowledged the measures would not add up to a “normal Christmas” and urged people to exercise caution, particularly when meeting with the elderly or the vulnerable.
He said: “We can’t afford to throw caution to the wind. The virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas and we must all be careful.
“I know this doesn’t equate to a normal Christmas and it won’t work for everyone. And it is up to each of us to think carefully about how we use this time-limited special dispensation.
“The virus has not gone away and families will need to make a personal judgment about the risk of forming a bubble with or visiting elderly relatives and the vulnerable.”
A joint statement issued by the four UK governments said they had been working closely together to find a way for family and friends to see each other, recognising it must be “limited and cautious”.