Covid: Environment Secretary George Eustice says controlling coronavirus is more important than Christmas

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

Controlling the spread of Covid-19 is more important than creating a plan for families to be able to spend time together at Christmas, a senior Cabinet minster has told ITV News.

George Eustice, the environment secretary, said the government wants people to have a Christmas that's "as close as possible to normal" but he conceded that "clearly it won't be a normal Christmas this year".

When asked about an opposition plan to build a four nations coordinated plan for the festive period, Mr Eustice said: "It's more important to have a plan for managing the spread of the virus."

His comments follow a letter from the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, Wales and England - and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland - who called on the leaders of all four nations to "work across governments to explore workable solutions that can enable travel to happen safely".

Mr Eustice said a plan is already in place, pointing to the tiered lockdown approach, but he added: "The right target here is to target the epidemiology and get the virus under control, and not just thinking about Christmas."

Mr Eustice said "we can't tell exactly where we will be by Christmas" regarding cororonavirus lockdowns, leaving room for some hope that restrictions may be lifted by then, but for thousands of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains celebrating Diwali there is less chance of normality.

The festival of Diwali - which involves singing, dancing and eating - is just over two weeks away but thousands of those hoping to celebrate it are living under some of the tightest coronavirus restrictions.

Diwali - otherwise known as the Festival of Light - is celebrated across five days by multiple faiths including Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Usually hundreds of people gather in public to celebrate, but this year the rule of six will severely restrict events.

On Christmas, West Midlands commissioner David Jamieson said officers would have to enforce any lockdown rules set by the Government over the festive period, as he also spoke of his fears of a "time bomb" of unrest.

He told ITV News: "The police don't have the appetite or resources to stop people enjoying their Christmas but where there are people flagrantly disobeying the rules, gatherings of 30-40 perhaps, not following Covid rules, that is where the police will have to step in, and the community would expect that."

Meanwhile, the former chief scientific adviser to the government has said the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 could more than double within weeks.

Hundreds of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains usually gather in Trafalgar Square, London to celebrate the Diwali Festival of Lights. Credit: PA

Professor Sir Mark Walport said that it is “not unrealistic” to think that there could be 25,000 people in hospitals by the end of November.

It comes as pressure mounts on medical staff, with more than 9,000 patients in hospitals with Covid-19.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s still evidence that there isn’t as much social distancing as there was when we clamped down on the first wave. And so we know that the risk is significant [and] that cases will continue to grow.”

He said that we are “still relatively early in the second wave” but added: “The number of cases is rising very significantly – it was 22,800 on October 27 and the seven-day average was just over 22,000. So there are an awful lot of cases.

“One of the differences of course is that we are better at looking after people with coronavirus now.

“And so hopefully the case fatality rate will be lower than it was in the first wave. But at the end of the day, the fatality rate, the number of people who die, is a product of the number of people who are infected and their vulnerability.”

On Christmas, the Lib Dem letter, addressed to Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford and Arlene Foster, warns they must “accept the inevitability” that people will travel over the festive period.

The letter states: “It therefore falls on you and your counterparts to work across governments to explore workable solutions that can enable travel to happen safely.

“To manage the implications for public health, we are urging you to hold a four nations summit to co-operate on students’ return, to agree uniform guidance on the number of people who can gather, and to explore how best to expand travel options to allow social distancing.”

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said: "No one country can manage this challenge in isolation. The fractured rules across the UK have already been incredibly difficult to piece together.

“We need a four nations summit to agree on one set of uniform guidance for Christmas that works for families across the UK.

"Ministers across Britain need to start work on it now.”