Pressure grows on No 10 to prevent Christmas Covid surge

This article is more than 1 month old

Downing Street says there are no plans to review guidance on household mixing or schools

Christmas shoppers in Manchester
Christmas shoppers in Manchester. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Ministers are coming under growing scientific and political pressure – including from the Tory benches – to prevent a “surge” in coronavirus cases connected to Christmas, as Downing Street rejected calls for any measures to mitigate the impact.

Conservative MPs, scientists and doctors called for a rethink of the policy allowing three households to mix indoors over Christmas, or for schools to take longer breaks over the festive period to curb the spread of Covid, but No 10 said there were no plans for either.

But with cases in London rising sharply and infection rates high in many other places, Venki Ramakrishnan, the Nobel prize-winning biologist and recently departed head of the Royal Society scientific body, warned of the expected consequences.

Quick guide

Covid at Christmas: how do rules vary across Europe?

France reopened non-essential shops this month, allowing Christmas shopping to begin. But an uptick in new infections since then means that while travel is permitted from 15 December, a nationwide 8pm to 7am curfew will begin then that will be lifted for 24 December, but not Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. Bars and restaurants will not reopen until January and private gatherings are limited to six adults.

Germany's "lockdown light", with bars and restaurants closed since November, has not proved effective and the country has shut down further, closing all bar essential shops (such as supermarkets and pharmacies) as well as hair and beauty salons until at least 10 January. A maximum of five people from two households may meet, except for 24, 25 and 26 December when up to four close family members from other households can be invited.

Austria’s strict lockdown has ended and the country is carrying out a mass programme of 10 million tests over the next fortnight with the aim of allowing more families to reunite over the festive period. Christmas markets have been cancelled.

Italy's prime minister has said tougher restrictions will be needed over the holiday period,but they have not yet been announced. Inter-regional travel is already banned from 20 December to 6 January except for work, health or emergency reasons, and Italians may not leave their home towns on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. Midnight mass on 24 December has been brought forward so worshippers can get home before a nationwide 10pm-5am curfew. 

Spain has appealed for people to be responsible but will allow movement between regions “for family reasons” between 23 December and 6 January. Regional curfews, which range from 10pm to midnight, will be pushed back to 1.30am on 24 and 31 December, when the limit for gatherings will be raised from six to 10, a measure that will also apply on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

The Netherlands has imposed a tough Christmas lockdown, closing non-essential shops and businesses, gyms, museums, cinemas and theatres for five weeks until 19 January. Bars and restaurants have been closed since mid-October. Schools are switching to online learning and people advised to stay at home. Households may invite up to two guests a day except for 24-26 December, when the ceiling is raised to three, excluding children under 13. 

Belgium has said households may be in close contact with just one extra person over the Christmas period, although people living on their own will be allowed to meet two others. Fireworks are to be banned on New Year’s Eve to limit gatherings.

Poland will allow people to spend Christmas only with their immediate family, with no more than five guests to be invited to each household until at least 27 December and travel banned outside people’s home towns.

Britain is relaxing restrictions over the holiday with “Christmas bubbles” allowing up to three households to mix between 23 and 27 December. Scientists, government advisers and medical experts have called for an urgent rethink, suggesting the move could result in a disastrous third wave in the New Year.

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

“I understand the emotional need families have, but from a public health point of view the relaxation of rules for Christmas are simply a recipe for another surge of the virus,” he told the Guardian.

“At a time when vaccines look very promising, I think that it is not too much to ask people to exercise restraint this Christmas. I myself have not seen my children or grandchildren for over a year because they live in the US, and do not expect to until we are vaccinated or infection rates are very low.”

Ramakrishnan stressed he did not seek “to be prescriptive about it myself” over the rules, adding: “That is for the government. I think if restrictions are relaxed as planned, and people take advantage of relaxed rules, it will lead to another surge at a particularly bad time.”

While household mixing plans for up to five days over Christmas are UK-wide (or seven days for Northern Ireland), the Welsh health minister, Vaughan Gething, said this could change in Wales.

Asked at a Monday press conference if Wales could reconsider the four-nations approach to Christmas, Gething said: “You can never say never … Nothing is off the table. It depends on the choices each of us is prepared to make.”

interactive

Downing Street said there were no plans to review the Christmas guidance or keep schools closed for longer.

Boris Johnson faced dissent from his own backbenches on Monday. The Tory former defence minister Tobias Ellwood asked the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to review the Christmas plan “so we don’t begin the new year with a third wave”.

Ellwood said in the Commons: “2020 has been the most testing of years, 2021 should be different because of that vaccine. My concern is letting down our guard for five days during Christmas could be very dangerous indeed.”

UK coronavirus cases

Stephen Hammond, the Tory MP for Wimbledon in south-west London, called for urgent action on transmission in schools but did not argue for a change to the Christmas rules, saying this should be “a personal decision”.

He said: “I think a lot of people will probably now decide that, actually, they don’t want to take that risk. So I think a lot of people will take that decision for themselves, and I think that’s probably the right way.”

Labour called on Monday for the government to set out how it planned to avoid the NHS coming under intense pressure in January.

“Overall increasing areas are rising faster than decreasing areas are falling,” Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, told Hancock in Commons exchanges about the decision to move London and some neighbouring areas into the top level of coronavirus restrictions.

“As things stand we are heading into the Christmas easing with diminishing headroom. The buffer zone these tiers was supposed to provide is getting much thinner.”