Mixing at Christmas would be 'throwing fuel on the fire', says Sage scientist
Holding family get-togethers and meeting friends over Christmas poses "substantial risks", according to one scientific adviser.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL) and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there is “far too much emphasis” on the festive season and older people are particularly at risk.
Professor Hayward says that with the country being close to vaccinating older members of the population, it would be “tragic” to throw away the progress made by lockdowns in suppressing the virus.
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Additionally, he also criticised the Government for “inconsistent” messages over what to do, saying it was clear that if people wanted to avoid Covid-19 they should not mix indoors.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Hayward told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Mixing at Christmas does pose substantial risks, particularly in terms of bringing together generations with high incidence of infection with the older generations who currently have much lower levels of infection and are at most risk of dying if they catch Covid.
“My personal view is we’re putting far too much emphasis on having a near-normal Christmas.
“We know respiratory infections peak in January so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this.”
Asked if people should worry more about the health and welfare of their parents and grandparents than gathering together for a movie over Christmas, Prof Andrew Hayward from UCL replied: “Well exactly.
“We’re on the cusp of being able to protect those elderly people who we love through vaccination and it would be tragic to throw that opportunity away and waste the gains we’ve made during lockdown by trying to return to normality over the holidays.”
Prof Hayward said he believed “there is a cost” to gathering families together, adding: “When policies are undulating between stay at home to save lives, eat out to help out, the tier system, second lockdown and 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 close contact with people outside of your household, avoid crowded places and protect the most vulnerable by not putting them at unnecessary risk.”
The expert said the reproduction number – the R value – of coronavirus still needed to get below 1 for the epidemic to shrink.
“Approaching 1 is not good enough – that still means the infection is increasing,” he said.
“It needs to be clearly below 1 and it needs to get to low levels, rather than the high levels that we still have.”
Asked whether he would impose further restrictions throughout December such as stricter tiers than before lockdown, he said “it is a very difficult balance”.
He added: “We would 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.”
The Government is still working out details of how people can come together over the festive period, with Downing Street saying families should be able to meet up after a “difficult year”.
Reports suggest households might be allowed to mix indoors for a five-day period from Christmas Eve, and that ministers are considering plans to allow three or four households to form bubbles.
However, a five-day easing could mean a potential 25-day period of tighter measures into January if the Government was to follow advice from scientists.
Speaking on Thursday, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said a final decision will be made as close to the end of England’s national lockdown as possible.