Boris Johnson will meet with his cabinet remotely on Sunday to decide how people will be able to reunite with their loved ones on Christmas, ahead of the announcement of a new Covid winter plan.
The self-isolating prime minister will confirm by video to parliament on Monday that the national restrictions will end on December 2 and be replaced by the regional three-tier system, with even tighter controls in some areas.
the Observer understands that ministers are eager to agree on a UK-wide set of rules that can be adopted for the Christmas period in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Talks are also taking place with decentralized administrations this weekend to try to agree on a united approach to be applied for a limited period during the holiday season.
The government’s key scientific committee, Sage, is also expected to publish more articles on Monday setting out its advice that previous levels were not robust enough and that a stricter regional approach is now required.
Downing Street said Saturday night that “while the measures will be similar to those in place previously, levels will also strengthen in some areas to safeguard the gains made during the period of national restrictions.”
More areas are expected to be placed at the higher levels to keep the virus in check and ensure that no further national restrictions are required.
Covid’s new winter plan is being discussed amid increased confidence over the use of vaccines and massive testing, and a growing sense that restrictions may be substantially relaxed in spring. Johnson believes that as long as the vaccines are approved by regulators, the first injections can be done next month before being rolled out more widely in the new year.
On Thursday, ministers will announce which areas will rank at which levels, according to the most recent data. Parliamentarians will be able to vote on the tier system before it goes into effect.
Issue 10 said: “Everyone’s efforts during the current national restrictions have helped control the virus, slowed its spread, and eased pressure on the NHS.
“But the prime minister and his scientific advisers are clear that the virus is still around and, without regional restrictions, it could quickly spiral out of control again before vaccines and mass testing have taken effect. That would jeopardize the progress the country has made and once again risk intolerable pressure on the NHS. “
Johnson, however, still faces competitive pressures from, on the one hand, conservative MPs concerned about the severity of a renewed tier system and, on the other hand, scientists increasingly warning that loosening the rules over Christmas could lead to a devastating increase. in cases.
It emerged last night that the prime minister faces a rebellion by Tory MPs for another stint under a tiered system that could leave him relying on Labor support to pass through the Commons. It is understood that 70 Conservative MPs have signed a letter warning that they cannot support localized restrictions next month unless ministers can show that they will “save more lives than they cost.”
The group, led by former chief Mark Harper and former Brexit minister Steve Baker, demands to see a full cost-benefit analysis of the restrictions.
“We are especially concerned about outdoor sports, the 10 pm curfew, the closure of non-essential retail stores, gyms and personal care businesses, restrictions on worship, home visiting, hospitality and the inclusion of minor children. 12-year-olds on the rule of 6, “they said. to write. “In these areas, we must be sure of the evidence of its effectiveness.”
Meanwhile, scientists and health experts added their voices to those concerned about plans to create a short window in which restrictions could be eased during the Christmas period. Such a move, they argue, could lead to large increases in Covid cases and cause thousands of unnecessary deaths.
The scientists note that the vaccines could be distributed to the public in a few weeks. “We just have to be patient a little bit more,” said vaccine expert Professor Brendan Wren of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “A vaccine is around the corner. We will have to accept that this will be a different Christmas and keep the pubs closed until we know we are safe. “
Opponents of loosening the lockdown also point out that other major religious festivals and public celebrations have been scaled down due to Covid-19. “There are precedents from around the world,” said Dr. Michael Head, senior researcher in global health at the University of Southampton.
“The Chinese New Year was shortened when the outbreak emerged in January. The Hajj generally draws more than 2 million pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, but this year it was restricted to just 10,000 visitors between the ages of 20 and 50. These measures prevented an estimated 127,000 new cases. ”Britain needed to act with similar restraint, he added.
The scientists also said the “eat out to help” scheme – to help the hospitality industry – had shown the dangers of encouraging people to dine and meet up during a respiratory illness pandemic.
“It was a disaster,” Wren said. “He undid months of hard work that had reduced the number of cases during the first shutdown. We encouraged people to come in and mingle during the summer, when they should have stayed outside as much as possible. Now they want to repeat that. You should not “.
In addition to the eating out scheme, several scientists told the Observer that the tiered system of government for fighting disease in England had been seriously flawed. “Basically level 1 didn’t work. It was too lazy and allowed cases to continue to increase where it was imposed, ”said Professor Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia. “After December 2, when the lockdown ends, we must go back to level 2 or level 3 across the country.”
However, the scientists also said they recognize the serious social and emotional risks faced by the public during Christmas. These would also have to be addressed. “If we can keep the houses as well ventilated and protect Grandma and Grandpa as much as possible, then a limited Christmas will be possible,” said virologist Dr. Julian Tang of the University of Leicester.
Head agreed. “It may be that a restricted bubble works, for example, with two households mixed. However, even this level of restriction will pose some risk and, as a result, we would see more cases in January. “
Tang also dismissed attempts to return to a normal Christmas. “Very crudely, the virus will inevitably spread during Christmas if there are more frequent contacts, within multigenerational family gatherings, from different homes, from different parts of the country, for longer periods, in crowded home settings,” he said.
The response was to impose stricter restrictions in December, Hunter said. “We need to impose level 2 or 3 restrictions after December 2, but maybe allow a couple of days of relaxation between Christmas Eve and San Esteban. If you don’t, a lot of people are just going to break the law and I think once they have done it once, they will be tempted to do it over and over again. “
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