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Covid-19 lockdown UK: ‘Normal’ Christmas would cause ‘cases spike’

Britain’s coronavirus Christmas drama descended into a row today after top scientists warned relaxing measures to enjoy five days of festive celebrations would inevitably lead to more deaths — but other academics fought back and insisted the nation needs to accept ‘some level of risk’.  

Boris Johnson is facing mounting pressure to make good on his pledge to ensure families can see their loved ones over the festive period, with ministers understood to be mulling over whether to allow four different households to mix together between December 24 to 28.

But the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths fell again today, suggesting they are on a downward slope. Cases fell 31.5 per cent compared to last week, with 22,915 recorded today. And deaths dipped 11 per cent to 501.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a public health expert at Bristol University, today slammed the proposals, warning there was ‘no point’ in having a merry Christmas only to ‘then bury friends and relations in January and February’. The festive period is ‘too dangerous a time and opportunity for the virus to spread’, he added.

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of Downing Street’s advisory group SAGE and an infectious diseases expert at University College London, also warned against the proposed plans, claiming they posed a ‘substantial’ risk of spreading the coronavirus to the elderly, who are the most vulnerable to Covid-19.

One expert even warned Britons would ‘regret’ a five-day break that has ‘given granny Covid for Christmas’. Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said ministers should be worrying about ‘crowded’ NHS hospitals rather than talking about yuletide celebrations.

Health bosses have already warned the nation may have to sacrifice 25 days in lockdown either side of Christmas to enjoy five days of celebrations. But experts today hit back at the threat, dismissing the five days of punishment for every one day of no restrictions as being ‘made up’ and ‘not based on any data’.

Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London who has tracked the course of the UK’s Covid outbreak since the spring, told MailOnline: ‘It would be naive to think we can get this virus completely under control before then so we have to accept some level of risk.’

And Professor John Edmunds, who is also a member of SAGE and epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, last night said he thought any pause in measures might be achievable ‘without’ another 25-day lockdown, and that he was ‘sure’ there would be a relaxation of measures over Christmas. 

Britons desperate to enjoy spending time with their loved ones this Christmas have already pledged to defy any potential ban on socialising over the festive period. One Twitter user said: ‘If the Grinch couldn’t stop Christmas, what chance does Boris think he stands?’

The row comes as Oxford University revealed its Covid vaccine triggers a ‘robust’ response from the immune system and appears to work in older people, based on results from second-phase trials. The NHS may start dishing out a jab as soon as next month after Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines also said their shots had been shown to be effective in final-stage trials. 

Professor Gabriel Scally, an expert in public health at Bristol University, said there was no point celebrating Christmas to 'bury' family and relations next year

Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious diseases expert at University College London, said mixing at Christmas posed a 'substantial' risk to the elderly

Professor Gabriel Scally (left), an expert in public health at Bristol University, said there was no point celebrating Christmas to ‘bury’ family and relations next year. Warning against relaxing the rules over Christmas, Professor Andrew Hayward (right), an infectious diseases expert at University College London, said mixing at Christmas posed a ‘substantial’ risk to the elderly

SHOULD RESTRICTIONS BE RELAXED FOR XMAS?: SCIENTISTS OPINIONS

‘Merry Xmas… then bury friends and relations’

Professor Gabriel Scally, from Bristol University

Professor Gabriel Scally, from Bristol University

Professor Gabriel Scally, an expert in public health at Bristol University, advised that the UK should not dump its restrictions for five days over Christmas.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain there was ‘no point’ in having a merry Christmas only to ‘bury friends and relations in January and February’.

‘We need to think very seriously about Christmas and how we’re going to spend it,’ he warned. ‘It’s too dangerous a time and opportunity for the virus to spread.’ 

He later tweeted: ‘We have not made nine months of sacrifices to throw it all away at Christmas.’

‘You’ll regret giving it to granny’ 

Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine

Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine

Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said restrictions should not be paused over the festive period because families will ‘regret’ it if they ‘give granny Covid for Christmas’.

She told BBC Radio 4’s World at One ministers should instead find a ‘rational, controlled, plan to come out the other side of this when we’ve got a vaccine into spring and we can actually start having a much more normal society’.

Speaking about NHS hospitals, she said officials should instead be focusing on these as many emergency units are already ‘crowded’.

‘That’s the reality of what we’ve got in hospitals at the moment,’ she said. ‘Let’s not have that happening and then we can talk about Christmas. But we’re not in that situation at the moment.’

There is a ‘substantial’ risk of spreading the virus at family meet-ups over Christmas 

Professor Andrew Hayward, a diseases expert from University College London

Professor Andrew Hayward, a diseases expert from University College London

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of Downing Street’s advisory group SAGE and an infectious disease expert at University College London, warned allowing families to mix at Christmas posed a ‘substantial’ risk of spreading the virus.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ministers were putting ‘far too much emphasis’ on having a near-normal Christmas rather than focusing on beating the virus.

‘We know respiratory infections peak in January, so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this,’ he said.

‘It would be tragic to throw that opportunity away and (the) gains we’ve made during lockdown by trying to return to normality over the holidays.’

‘Use your common sense’ 

Professor Tim Spector, from King's College London

Professor Tim Spector, from King’s College London

Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist from King’s College London, said some loosening of the restrictions over the festive period would be ‘sensible’.

The architect of the Covid Symptom Study app – which has been tracking Britain’s coronavirus outbreak – told MailOnline: ‘I would certainly be looking to limit the number of people you meet at Christmas but do it in a sensible way every one can see as pragmatic.’

He said ministers should avoid making the rules ‘too strict’ or people will just ‘break’ them. ‘We are seeing some evidence of that lockdown fatigue already,’ he said.

But sounding a note of caution, the Professor said it was ‘naive’ to think Britain’s outbreak would be under control by Christmas. 

‘I don’t think we should be focusing on one week or one day at a time so I think there should be some restrictions for Christmas – that would be sensible,’ he said.

‘But it would be naive to think we can get this virus completely under control before then so we have to accept some level of risk.’

‘Tier Two restrictions will do’

Professor John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Professor John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said last night he felt the Government may be able to loosen restrictions over Christmas without then imposing another lockdown.

‘I still think we’ll have to have restrictions in place,’ he told ITV’s Robert Peston. ‘(But) I think we’ll be asked to work at home wherever we can and you know the restrictions in place – meeting families like for instance exactly what’s in Tier Two and above.

He added he reckoned the restrictions would remain as ‘you can’t meet others’ except for this ‘little window’ over Christmas where ‘I’m sure we’ll relax to some extent’. 

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In other coronavirus developments:

  • Conservative MPs pile pressure on the Government not to extend England’s lockdown, saying ‘freedom is not just for Christmas;
  • China says a Covid-19 study clears it of any blame over the pandemic because it found the virus was circulating in Italy in September last year;
  • Families of Royal Marines veteran, 89, and retired registrar, 88, killed by Covid-19 sue the Government claiming the rapid discharge of elderly patients from hospital caused deadly outbreaks;
  • Jaguar Land Rover orders staff to turn off NHS Covid-19 app at work to stop them having to self-isolate ‘unnecessarily’;
  • It emerges SAGE used data from Wikipedia to model Covid-19 outbreak in the spring and did not have a single Covid-19 expert in its ranks;
  • Danish study finds face masks do NOT protect the wearer from Covid-19 but will stop them from infecting other people.

Calling on ministers to consider the consequences of unravelling restrictions over Christmas Professor Scally, who is a member of rival scientific advisory group Independent SAGE, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘We need to think very seriously about Christmas and how we’re going to spend it. It’s too dangerous a time and opportunity for the virus to spread.’ 

He later tweeted: ‘We have not made nine months of sacrifices to throw it all away at Christmas.’ 

Professor Hayward warned ministers were putting ‘far too much emphasis’ on having a near-normal Christmas rather than beating the virus.  

‘We know respiratory infections peak in January, so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘It would be tragic to throw that opportunity away and (the) gains we’ve made during lockdown by trying to return to normality over the holidays.’ 

When asked whether the festive freedom would equal weeks of tighter restrictions for Britons, he said: ‘Well, I’m not a mathematical modeller but that’s the process that’s done. 

‘One looks at the contact rates across society and works out how many infections that would lead to and how many less contacts you would have during lockdown in order to achieve a normal Christmas. 

‘I think there is a cost but when policy is undulating between stay at home to save lives, eat out to help out, the tier system, the second lockdown and now proposals for an amnesty on social distancing, it’s a highly inconsistent message. 

‘Whereas, in fact, the things that people need to do to stay safe, and to keep their loved ones safe, are relatively simple. 

‘Avoid, as far as possible, indoor closed contact with people outside of your household, avoid crowded places and protect the most vulnerable by not putting them at unnecessary risk.’

But suggesting a glimmer of hope for some relaxation of rules over Christmas he said the ‘economy’ also needed to be considered by policymakers.

He said: ‘I think to a large extent it is, it is a very difficult balance.

‘We need to be very mindful of the fact that this last period of the year is absolutely critical economically for many businesses, so I think we do need to find a way of allowing them to function but in a responsible way that is highly socially distanced.’ 

Dr Henderson said ministers should come up with a ‘rational, controlled, plan to come out the other side of this when we’ve got a vaccine into spring and we can actually start having a much more normal society’.

She told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that she was concerned some NHS hospitals already had ‘crowded’ emergency departments, as well as the beginnings of ‘corridor care’ and ‘problems unloading ambulances’.

‘That’s the reality of what we’ve got in hospitals at the moment,’ she said. ‘Let’s not have that happening and then we can talk about Christmas. But we’re not in that situation at the moment.’ 

TEST & TRACE FAILS TO REACH RECORD NUMBER OF COVID-19 CASES, LATEST FIGURES REVEAL

Test and Trace failed to reach a record number of positive cases in the seven-day spell to November 11

Test and Trace failed to reach a record number of positive cases in the seven-day spell to November 11

NHS Test and Trace has failed to reach a record number of Covid-19 cases, after finally appearing to get slightly better last week.

Figures published today by the Department of Health show it missed 21,419 positive cases in the seven-day spell to November 11, the largest number since the system was launched in the UK.

Of the 156,853 Covid-19 cases transferred to the system, 84.9 per cent – or 133,195 – were reached and asked to self-isolate. This is slightly below the previous week, when 85.6 per cent of all Covid-19 cases – or 121,407 – were reached. 

Of close contacts, those who had been near Covid-19 cases for more than 15 minutes before they tested positive for the virus, the system reached the same proportion – 60.5 per cent – as the previous week. 

But this meant they failed to get hold of almost 189,885 people who could be infected with the virus, leaving them to continue to circulate in the community and possibly spread the disease further. In the previous week they missed 190,835 of these individuals.

Test and Trace — which Boris Johnson promised would be ‘world-beating’ — has fallen short of its targets for weeks. It has been struggling to get through to many Covid-19 patients and their contacts since infections began to surge again in late September. 

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Professor Edmunds said last night he felt the Government may be able to loosen restrictions over Christmas without then imposing another lockdown. 

‘I still think we’ll have to have restrictions in place,’ he told ITV’s Robert Peston.'(But) I think we’ll be asked to work at home wherever we can and you know the restrictions in place – meeting families like for instance exactly what’s in Tier Two and above.

He added he reckoned the restrictions would remain as ‘you can’t meet others’ except for this ‘little window’ over Christmas where ‘I’m sure we’ll relax to some extent’. 

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown admonished the Prime Minister this morning for always appearing to be ‘behind the curve’.

‘I’ve found being prime minister you’ve got to be two steps ahead of events, you cannot be behind the curve, you’ve always got to be anticipating the next problem,’ he told Sky News.

‘What he’s got to do – Boris Johnson – is say “look, if there’s any doubt about whether we can lower the restrictions at Christmas, we’ve got to act now. We’ve got to take the tough measures that are necessary now if we are going to stop people not being able to enjoy their Christmas”.’ 

‘I think we’ve been behind the curve for too long and we tend to end up doing things at the last minute when we should have acted earlier.

He added that Boris Johnson and his ministers should know what the UK should be doing ‘now’ to prevent a further increase in restrictions or to stop them from being lowered during the festive period.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace argued No10 does not want to be the ‘Grinch that stole Christmas’ but insisted the Government was also aiming to ‘protect lives’. The PM has said it is his ‘desire’ to try and allow loved ones to enjoy the festive period together after a tumultuous year. But yesterday he admitted it wouldn’t be a normal Christmas. 

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Christmas – I’m not campaigning for that. 

‘I would love all of us to be able to have a Christmas, but more than anything I want us to get through this Covid and try and get this country back to normal and I want to protect lives.’

But many Britons have tired of the indecision from the Government, and took to social media to vent their frustration against ministers.

One wrote: ‘I for one will be having a Christmas like every other year, no matter what Boris says. He has proven his incompetence and I for one will not listen to a word he says.’

Airing their plans to defy the Government, a second wrote: ‘If the Grinch couldn’t stop Christmas, what chance does Boris think he stands?’

And a third added: ‘I’m going to see my family at Christmas and then ignore any lockdown rules that may follow that so really don’t care what Boris says I’m “allowed” to do.’

Others, however, said that although it will break their heart they will avoid meeting with family at Christmas due to the virus. 

One daughter wrote on Twitter: ‘This is potentially my mum’s last Christmas. No matter what Boris says, and no matter how it breaks my heart, I won’t see her.

‘I will not risk whatever she has left of her life for me to see her on Christmas day. I love her too much.’

Ms Samuels, from York, told Good Morning Britain today that ‘a lot of people’ feel they should not be told what to do by politicians and official experts.

‘Christmas is something that’s celebrated by the old, faint and young, and the idea that we should hide ourselves away from our family in perpetuity while people are spiralling into depression, while people are losing their livelihoods, while people are trapped in care homes and most students are trapped in student accommodation I think it is quite frankly inhumane,’ she said.

‘We have a right to see our families, we have a right to live our lives, and i think that that’s what people will be doing regardless of whether or not big brother upstairs gives us permission to do so.

‘I will commend people for doing that, you have a right to celebrate Christmas. There are people that will want to have a bit of joy when it’s been quite frankly a depressing time.’

She added: ‘We have to make sure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease and that’s what we’re facing right now.’ 

A health chief yesterday warned England could face 25 days of extra restrictions for just five days of festive freedom in which Britons could throw off the lockdown shackles and gather indoors for celebrations.

Under plans being considered by ministers, churches are also expected to be allowed to hold Christmas Day services, with the Church of England saying ‘the message of light shining in the darkness’ is urgently needed.

The proposals could see the UK celebrating a more normal festive period, before restrictions come back into force

The proposals could see the UK celebrating a more normal festive period, before restrictions come back into force

COVID-19 CASE RATES FALL IN ALL ADULT AGE GROUPS EXCEPT FOR OVER 70s, PHE SAYS 

Infection rates are falling in all adult age groups except for the over 70s, Public Health England has said

Infection rates are falling in all adult age groups except for the over 70s, Public Health England has said

Covid-19 case rates in England have fallen for all adult age groups except for those over 70, Public Health England has said.

In its latest weekly surveillance report for the seven-day spell ending November 15, the agency said the highest rate remained in 20 to 29-year-olds, which stood at 362.1 cases per 100,000 people in the week to November 15.

But they said this was down from 389.9 in the previous week. Rates have also dropped among 30 to 39-year-olds (from 338.6 to 324.3), 40 to 49-year-olds (316.3 to 313.7), 50 to 59 year-olds (306.1 to 302.3) and 60 to 69-year-olds (217.5 to 209.6).

In those aged 70 to 79, however, PHE officials said that infection rates were still rising. This is concerning as this age group is most likely to get seriously ill and become hospitalised if they contract the virus.

It also means that lockdown may be extended beyond December 2, as ministers have to be confident that there are enough beds available in the NHS before agreeing to lift the draconian measures. 

The report said infection rates had risen to 147.5, from 146.1 the previous week.

There was a similar uptick for those aged over 80, where infection rates climbed from 235.5 to 245.3. 

The rate has also increased for 10-19-year-olds, from 232.8 to 257.4.

Their data is based on positive swabs taken over the week ending November 15, meaning it shows the infections in the country since lockdown was imposed.

But experts have said that, because it takes at least a week for Covid-19 infections to become apparent and tests to be carried out, it could be up to two weeks before the impact of the lockdown on infection rates becomes clear. 

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Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, Public Health England’s top doctor Susan Hopkins said she believes ‘it is possible’ — though she warned that for every day measures are loosened, it will require five days of tighter restrictions to reverse the damage. 

But one Tory MP warned it would be better for the Prime Minister to cancel Christmas and be branded the ‘Grinch’ rather than risk a spike in Covid-19 deaths that could paint him as the ‘Grim Reaper’. They said: ‘He’s going to be blamed for it (a rise in deaths). It is always in mid to late January you get the NHS winter crisis.’

Speaking at a Downing street briefing yesterday, PHE’s top medic Dr Hopkins said: ‘We are very keen that we have a Christmas as close to normal as possible. That requires all of us to make every effort over this national restriction period, and even in early December, to get the cases as low as possible and to reduce the risk of transmission within households and between families. 

‘A final decision, of course, will rest with the Government and we look forward to hearing what those plans are.’ 

Deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said SAGE had also been examining the potential relaxation of measures over Christmas. She told Wednesday’s conference: ‘We did send some advice in over the weekend. But we genuinely don’t know what decisions have been made.’  

The intention in Number 10 is clearly to deliver a Christmas as close to normal as possible, with Mr Johnson’s official spokesman telling the briefing: ‘I think the PM has been clear in his desire to try and allow families to have Christmas together. We accept it won’t be a normal Christmas but as I say the PM has been clear in his desire for families to be able to see each other.

‘I think the point I would make is we are taking the tougher measures now to drive down the level of transmission, to drive down the number of patients admitted to hospital and then ultimately, those who end up on ICU and sadly die.

‘We are taking these tougher measures now so that, as I say, the PM has given his clear intent to allow families to spend Christmas together.’

Emphasising the importance of driving down infections before Christmas in order to allow the relaxation of restrictions, Dr Hopkins said Britons should be ‘very careful’ about the number of contacts they have in order to reduce transmission before the festive period to ‘Get our cases as low as possible’.

Asked about what Christmas may look like, she told the Government data briefing: ‘This is a decision that will be made by Government and I know that they’re working hard to develop an outline of what that will look like and what the new tiers will look like post-December 2 and what Christmas will look like.’

She added: ‘Hopefully the Government will make the 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 and some socialisation we will all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again.’

An insider told the Daily Telegraph yesterday two proposals are being discussed for the festive period – extending the ‘rule of six’ over Christmas or permitting households to mix.

Boris Johnson has come under pressure to reveal whether restrictions should be lifted for Christmas

Boris Johnson has come under pressure to reveal whether restrictions should be lifted for Christmas

The source said it was ‘more likely’ the Government would decide to allow multiple households to get together ‘for fear of people being left out.’

It added: ‘There’s very much a hope that there can be a UK approach because there’s a realisation that people have families in all four corners of the UK.

‘It’s important to give people hope as well after what has been a very difficult year for everyone.’

It is likely the total number of households, which has not been confirmed, would be at least three to include both sets of grandparents.  

Graphs wheeled out at Wednesday’s Government press conference showed hospital admissions for Covid-19 have dropped in the North West, North East and the Midlands, in another promising sign that the three-tiered approach was managing to curb the spread of the virus – especially Tier Three.

OXFORD’S JAB IS ‘SAFE AND PROVOKES A ROBUST IMMUNE RESPONSE’ IN OVER-60s

Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine triggers a ‘robust’ response from the immune system and appears to work in older people, a study revealed today in another leap towards ending the pandemic.

Scientists behind the project this morning published the results of an early trial of the jab, which found it created strong signs of immunity in 99 per cent of people.

The second-phase study included 560 people, most of whom were white and British, and showed that people across all age groups seemed to react equally well to the jab. It adds to data published in July suggesting it would work safely for under-55s. Studies of people with serious health conditions and other ethnicities are ongoing.

It marks another breakthrough in the race to develop a vaccine to prevent Covid-19, after jabs made by Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech were both revealed to be around 95 per cent effective within the past week.

Oxford’s results are from an earlier stage of testing so cannot estimate how well the vaccine protects against Covid, but are still a positive step. Detailed results about how well it works are expected within weeks, the university said.

The research showed that people in all age groups developed antibodies – virus-destroying substances made by the immune system – within 28 days of their first dose of the vaccine, and these were boosted further after the second dose.

It showed that the vaccine caused more side effects than a fake jab but that these were ‘mild’ and more common in young people than older participants.

Within the first week after having the injection more than eight out of 10 under-55s said their arm hurt and and they later experienced tiredness, muscle aches or headaches.

Britain has pre-ordered 100million doses of Oxford’s jab, which is being made with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, so if it works and can be manufactured fast enough it could be used to protect the majority of the UK’s population. 

Scientists today described the news as ‘promising’ and ‘positive’, adding that the UK’s order could be big enough to reach herd immunity if the vaccine comes good. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a tweet: ‘There is still much work to be done, but this is a really encouraging set of findings’. 

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