With the government resisting pressure to scrap the easing of regulations this Christmas, a coronavirus expert has explained what makes the festive season more dangerous.
Ashley Woodcock, a professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester, has already called on the government to replace a family Christmas in 2020 with a “designated day” of celebration next year.
Now Woodcock has warned that people pass coronavirus around “within their peer group” – and that Christmas is “uniquely designed to mix young and old”.
He said: “This will bring severe disease and death to the elderly (much greater than meeting within peer groups).
“This would be an avoidable catastrophe… just in time for New Year.”
UK-wide plans falter
Woodcock’s warning comes as the original UK-wide plans to keep the easing of restrictions faltered, with Wales and Scotland diverging from the original plans.
In Wales, people are being advised to limit their bubbles to two households, while in Scotland the guidance on what people should do is being strengthened.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford set out his decision to deviate from the previously agreed approach, saying: “The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus.”
The price of the relaxed restrictions will be a tougher lockdown in Wales from 28 December.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recommended that those people forming a Christmas bubble should only meet up on one day and not stay overnight “unless it is unavoidable”.
She said: “Firstly and unequivocally the safest way to spend Christmas this year for you and for those you love is to stay within your own household and your own home.
“My strong recommendation is this is what you should do if at all possible.”
Earlier, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said that it would be up to people to make a “personal judgement” whether they wanted to meet up with vulnerable family members over the holiday period.
He suggested that some people may decide to “keep it small” and put off larger gatherings until the spring, saying: “Easter can be the new Christmas.”
‘Recipe for catastrophe’
The Christmas plans divergence comes after two leading medical journals warned an easing of restrictions would “cost many lives”, while the British Medical Association (BMA) echoed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in demanding an urgent rethink.
On Tuesday, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal published a rare joint editorial warning that the easing was “another major error that will cost many lives”.
Watch: People must make ‘personal judgement’ over Christmas
The BMA backed the warning, saying the combination of a third wave in the new year and the typical winter pressures were a “recipe for catastrophe”.
BMA council chairman Chaand Nagpaul said: “Now is the time to for everyone to continue to follow the rules and guidance until the vaccine can be rolled out to protect many more of us and allow us to mix freely once more.”
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, also said the easing was a “bad idea” and that people needed to be “incredibly cautious”.
“I think, to avoid the preventable deaths that we’re going to have in January as a result of this, we shouldn’t be doing it, but if we do do it then I think we need to do it in the most modest way possible,” she told BBC Breakfast.
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said the impact of the relaxation was “really uncertain”.
“There are two things happening over the period: one is that most workplaces and schools are closed, so that will result in reduced contact,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“On the other hand, if we all mix together and have a normal Christmas then we know that in a normal year most respiratory diseases and hospital admissions increase after Christmas anyway in a non-COVID year, so there’s clearly a risk, but it really very much depends on what people do.
“It’s very hard to predict and say ‘oh yes, this is going to be a disaster’ or ‘nothing is going to happen’ because it really does depend on what people decide do.”
A snap YouGov survey of 3,856 adults found 57% believed the plans should be dropped and the current rules remain in place during the festive period.
Some 31% said the easing should go ahead as planned, while 12% said they were unsure.
Watch: The COVID dos and don’ts of Christmas this year