Victoria Derbyshire's Covid Christmas comments ‘problematic’, say experts

Experts have cautioned against flouting coronavirus restrictions this Christmas after the journalist Victoria Derbyshire said she planned to defy the law on social gatherings to celebrate with her family.

London, where Derbyshire lives, is under tier 2 restrictions, meaning the rule of six applies to outdoor settings and people should not mix with members of any other household indoors. People found breaking the rules can be fined by the police.

Derbyshire told the Radio Times she planned to break the law at Christmas if the coronavirus restrictions were still in place. “If the rule of six is still in place at Christmas, we’re breaking it to have the rule of seven. We just are. Joining me, my husband and our two boys will be my mum, her partner and my husband’s dad,” she said.

“It’s fine. We’ll do it knowing what the risks are. We’re not stupid. We’re going to be sensible and buy a thermometer gun. But we have to be together at Christmas. It feels almost irresponsible saying that, but I don’t think we’re alone in feeling that way. We need to see my elderly mum and my husband’s elderly dad. We just do.”

Dr William Hanage, a professor of the evolution and epidemiology of infectious disease at Harvard University, suggested the approach was far from fine. “I can have some sympathy with this, but it’s still about 9,734 miles away from cool,” he said.

Hanage said that among the problems with such plans, thermometer guns are not a very useful tool for screening, not least since coronavirus can be transmitted by people without symptoms. “Multigenerational gatherings, indoors, involving eating, are among the most risky settings for transmission,” he said.

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Data suggests the risk of death from Covid-19 rises steeply with age, and a number of studies have suggested most clusters of infection are linked to indoor settings.

Prof Linda Bauld, an expert in public health at the University of Edinburgh, said it was understandable that families would want to gather indoors for occasions such as Christmas, but she stressed that such a possibility hinged on whether the spread of the virus had been suppressed.

“The choices we make and the circumstances we live in affect whether the virus spreads or not,” she said, adding that most non-compliance with the rules did not involve large house parties but smaller infringements where people “stretch” the rules for their own convenience. “Things like additional travel when it is not advised, not wearing a face covering everywhere we are supposed to, visiting friends indoors in areas where that is not advised, or adding more people to an indoor gathering than is recommended,” she said.

Bauld raised concerns that other people may follow Derbyshire’s example. “When high-profile figures say they’ll be ignoring guidance, it sends a message to everyone that different interpretations of the rules are OK. That’s problematic even if we would all have huge sympathy with the sentiment,” she said.

While the government has encouraged the public to report anyone flouting Covid restrictions to the police, the prominent lawyer Jolyon Maugham QC said Derbyshire’s Christmas festivities were unlikely to be disturbed.

“The law is useless for moments like this. The police won’t be interrupting the Queen’s speech by kicking in your front door to demand proof of address,” he said. “You only get people to adhere if they feel the whole community is making sacrifices. But that went out the window when we saw what Dominic Cummings was doing – and I expect most of us think other government figures do it too.”

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