The relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions over Christmas could lead to a third wave and "more unnecessary deaths", a leading scientist has warned.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has described allowing three households to mix for up to five days in a bid to allow families to reunite to some extent at Christmas as "throwing fuel on the Covid fire".
"I think it will definitely lead to increased transmission," he told BBC2's Newsnight.
"It is likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths.
“We are still in a country where we have got high levels of infection with Covid, particularly in young people.
"Bringing them together for hours, let alone days, with elderly relatives, I think, is a recipe for regret for many families.
“With the vaccine on the way, if we are not very careful over Christmas we are really in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on this one.”
It comes as the British Medical Association (BMA) also warned easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will “almost certainly” lead to a rise in the infection rate, as three households will be able to form a bubble over the festive period.
The UK government and devolved administrations have agreed a temporary easing of measures which will allow three households to mix in a bubble from December 23 to 27.
Social distancing will be relaxed within the bubbles, giving people the chance to hug friends and family for the first time in months.
ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan says the easing of restrictions over Christmas will lead to a "surge" in cases
BMA UK council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “There is a careful balance to be struck when weighing up the risks associated with Covid-19 and the understandable wish to see loved ones this Christmas.
“This virus does not discriminate against certain days of the year.
“Relaxing the rules on indoor mixing for a five-day period will almost certainly carry the risk of a rise in infection rate and possibly more hospitalisation and deaths, adding further pressure on the health service, doctors and NHS staff.
“With infections levels and hospitalisations still worryingly high, and the daily death toll in the second wave now rising, we do not want loved ones to become seriously ill, hospitalised or lives put at risk this Christmas.
“The priority now must be to support the public to adhere to stringent rules around physical distancing and infection control to drive down the infection rates further by Christmas.
"The lower the level of infection the less risk it will place for families to meet at Christmas.”
Dr Nagpaul added that “it is absolutely vital” people adopt the necessary safety precautions if mixing with other households, such as ventilating rooms and limiting physical contact when masks are not worn.
However, not all experts have been critical of the plans.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said Christmas might be what is needed to “make it through the rest of winter”.
He said: “Any relaxation of the restrictions over the Christmas period will almost inevitably lead to some increase in transmission, and therefore illness, hospitalisations and sadly deaths.
“The issue is whether that increased risk is tolerable in relation to the benefits.”
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Prof Hunter said there will be “some downward pressure” on transmission due to schools being closed for the Christmas break, while there could be a similar effect from the tier system “working well”.
He added: “Providing that the new tier system is better managed than in October, any increase in cases could be relatively short-lived.
“After Christmas, we will still have to live through a few more months of restrictions at least.
“Christmas, whether or not we celebrate the day as a religious festival, may be what we need to make it through the rest of winter.”
What can you do in each tier from December 2? The new rules in England at a glance:
Tier 1: Up to six people can meet indoors or outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm.
Tier 2: No mixing indoors, apart from support bubbles. Up to six people can meet outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm - but alcohol can only be served with a substantial meal.
Tier 3: No mixing indoors. People can only meet outdoors in limited places such as parks and public gardens. Pubs and restaurants must close, with the exception of takeaway sales.
In all tiers, non-essential shops, gyms, hairdressers and personal care services can open. People in all tiers to work from home where they can do so. Full details on what you can do in each tier here.