Fears are mounting that a third coronavirus wave could hit the UK after rules are relaxed over Christmas.
Three households will be able to join together under one roof in an exclusive ‘Christmas bubble’ for five days UK-wide, between December 23-27, the Government announced on Tuesday.
But scientists have expressed concerns it will lead to an increased transmission of the virus, with hospitals overrun and more deaths.
Professor Andrew Hayward is one expert who has said the four nations’ approach to Christmas risks triggering a third wave of the pandemic in the new year.
Professor Andrew Hayward told BBC2’s Newsnight: “Effectively what this will be doing is throwing fuel on the Covid fire. I think it will definitely lead to increased transmission. It is likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths.
“We are still in a country where we have got high levels of infection with Covid, particularly in young people. Bringing them together for hours, let alone days, with elderly relatives, I think, is a recipe for regret for many families.
“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.”
Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield South East told the Examiner Live: “I think I’d sooner savoured a slightly tougher national policy until we get to a bit of relaxation over Christmas.
“I was always doubtful you could say that it could work by December 2. There are signs it is pushing rates down but not to the extent we can feel responsible about relaxing it.
“I think there is a great risk to it, and I think the risks have been explained, we may end up with much tougher restrictions in January. Four or five days of people having much fewer restrictions…I think will have consequences.
“I understand people want to see their families at Christmas. The real problem is that household transmission is still the major way in which Covid is spreading. It’s the hardest part to properly regulate – you can say we can only have six people…but how do you know that actually ensures that is happening?
“I can understand the desire, but if we are going to take a risk with a bit of relaxation over Christmas then we ought to be really tough before Christmas – really squeeze the infection rate down before we get there.”
The British Medical Association (BMA) has also warned easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will “almost certainly” lead to a rise in the infection rate, as three households will be able to form a bubble over the festive period.
BMA UK council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “There is a careful balance to be struck when weighing up the risks associated with Covid-19 and the understandable wish to see loved ones this Christmas.
“This virus does not discriminate against certain days of the year.
“Relaxing the rules on indoor mixing for a five-day period will almost certainly carry the risk of a rise in infection rate and possibly more hospitalisation and deaths, adding further pressure on the health service, doctors and NHS staff.
“With infections levels and hospitalisations still worryingly high, and the daily death toll in the second wave now rising, we do not want loved ones to become seriously ill, hospitalised or lives put at risk this Christmas.
“The priority now must be to support the public to adhere to stringent rules around physical distancing and infection control to drive down the infection rates further by Christmas. The lower the level of infection the less risk it will place for families to meet at Christmas.”
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “Any relaxation of the restrictions over the Christmas period will almost inevitably lead to some increase in transmission, and therefore illness, hospitalisations and sadly deaths.
“The issue is whether that increased risk is tolerable in relation to the benefits.”
Prof Hunter said there will be “some downward pressure” on transmission due to schools being closed for the Christmas break, while there could be a similar effect from the tier system “working well”.
He added: “Providing that the new tier system is better managed than in October, any increase in cases could be relatively short-lived.
“After Christmas, we will still have to live through a few more months of restrictions at least.
“Christmas, whether or not we celebrate the day as a religious festival, may be what we need to make it through the rest of winter.”
Bubbles can gather in private homes, outdoor public spaces, or places of worship together – but not the pub – over the five days in which rules are being relaxed.
The new rules will let many people who are under the toughest Covid rules see their families for the only time before Easter.
You do not need to maintain social distancing with people in your Christmas bubble.
You can behave as if you’re in one household for that five-day period.
Boris Johnson has warned people “’tis the season to be jolly careful” while ministers can’t rule out more deaths due to the move.