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Ministers are expected to announce a tougher system of regional coronavirus rules for England next week to let families see each other at Christmas, as scientists warned that every day of festive respite would require five days of restrictions.
Further data on the impact of the England-wide lockdown which ends on 2 December is needed before the government makes a final decision, but documents outlining possible amended tiers within the traffic light-style system are understood to have been circulated to some departments.
Local authorities are expecting them to be tighter than the previous three-tier system, but to allow all shops to stay open.
A key decision will come over pubs and restaurants, with hospitality industries warning that even restrictions similar to the old tier 2, which barred indoor mixing between households, will have a disastrous effect. A members’ survey conducted by four pub and hospitality organisations and released on Wednesday showed that under tier 2 restrictions 76% of businesses said they would be unviable.
Boris Johnson faces a row over the prospect of emerging from lockdown into stricter tiers, however. His scientific advisers insist a more robust regime is needed but some Conservative MPs warned that they would not accept restrictions being relaxed only for a few days over the festive period, saying: “Freedom cannot just be for Christmas.”
Johnson has promised MPs a vote on the next set of rules, and while Labour’s support all but guarantees they will pass through the Commons, it would be deeply uncomfortable for the prime minister if this was needed.
At a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday, Dr Susan Hopkins from Public Health England (PHE) said that to keep the epidemic under control any relaxation over Christmas would need to be balanced by tough restrictions on socialising before and afterwards.
Hopkins said previous advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the government’s expert committee, noted that for every day restrictions were eased, they would need to be tightened again for two days more.
But a subsequent statement from PHE said Hopkins “misspoke” and that modelling in fact showed that an estimated five days of restrictions would be needed for every one day of relaxation.
Hopkins said: “Hopefully, the government will make a decision that will allow us to have some mixing, but we will wait and see what that is. And then I think once we have got past the Christmas period, if there’s been a release on some socialisation, we will all have to be very responsible and reduce contacts again.”
Data released at the briefing show that the R number – the number of people each infected person goes on to infect – has come down since the beginning of October, largely attributed to the strictest, tier 3, restrictions put in place before the latest lockdown, principally in the north of England.
On Wednesday, the number of people reported to have tested positive for coronavirus across the UK fell below 20,000 for the first time in more than two weeks, while deaths fell slightly to 529. But the number of people hospitalised with Covid-19 looks set to exceed the peak of the first wave within days, raising fears of the NHS becoming overwhelmed and more non-urgent procedures being suspended.
No 10 has stressed the intention to allow a relaxation of rules over Christmas, dependent on the new data, but has refused to say what this would involve, or how many people or households would be allowed to meet, and in what settings.
“We accept it won’t be a normal Christmas, but the PM has been clear in his desire for families to be able to see each other,” the prime minister’s spokesman said on Wednesday. “I’m not going to be able to set out any plans now, we’ll do that next week, and that will be based on the best and latest data that is available to us.”
Responding to the Downing Street briefing, MPs from the Covid Recovery Group, a collection of around 50 Conservative backbenchers who are sceptical about renewed lockdown, expressed concern at the scientists’ advice.
Mark Harper, the former chief whip who chairs the group, said the country “needs a different and enduring strategy for living with the virus that lasts beyond Christmas”, adding: “We cannot keep living under a cycle of lockdowns and restrictions that expect people to be grateful for being let out to enjoy the festive season, only to have strict restrictions imposed on them afterwards that cause them health problems and destroy their livelihoods.”
Steve Baker, the deputy chair, said: “Freedom cannot just be for Christmas. Lockdowns and restrictions cause immense economic, social and non-Covid health damage, and we’ve got to start talking about those so that we know the restrictions we’re being asked to live under are not causing more harm than good to our citizens.”
Source: The Guardian
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