Christmas gatherings mean increase in Covid cases 'likely' but stricter rules would be 'ignored', says health minister

Video report by ITV Wales reporter Jess Main

The Welsh health minister has warned that allowing more people to mix at Christmas would mean an increase in coronavirus cases is "likely".

Vaughan Gething confirmed that no decision has been made yet on what restrictions might be in place over the festive season but has acknowledged that strict rules would lead to "a significant amount of people" ignoring them.

The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, also told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he had talked to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove on Wednesday about a UK-wide approach to Christmas restrictions, with another meeting planned for next week.

He said an agreement on permitting travel across the UK during the Christmas season was “top of the list of things to agree”, even if a wider agreement was not possible.

It comes as one scientific advisor in England warned that allowing people to gather at Christmas could be "throwing fuel on the fire". Downing Street have indicated that the rules over Christmas in England will be relaxed to some extent.

Wales' First Minister has previously said a common approach to Christmas across the whole of the UK "is the right way" to go. Credit: PA Images

Mr Drakeford told ITV Wales' Andrea Byrne that they have to prepare for a rise in cases after Christmas if restrictions are lifted.

He also said, "If there are extra freedoms over Christmas, that is not an invitation for people to use that freedom irresponsibly."

"You'd still hope that people would ask themselves whether the people they are meeting are the right people."

"You wouldn't want to meet people who are frail or vulnerable or for whom the impact of coronavirus would be very serious," Mr Drakeford said.

Mr Gething told ITV Wales: "We have not agreed on whether there will be restrictions, or what form they might be, or the length of them and we have not agree about any measures for afterwards."

He added a warning that whatever the restrictions are, "we all need to accept that if we are going to have relaxation and more mixing, we are likely to see a further increase in cases".

However he did admit that Welsh Government are facing a difficult decision on how to ensure people follow any rules that may be in place.

"We face a really difficult challenge," he said.

"If we say there are to be no easing of restrictions over Christmas...we know a significant amount of people will ignore all of the rules and all of the guidance.

"They will make up their own rules."

Many other religious holidays have had to be marked differently this year because of the pandemic. Some family gatherings have had to move online to become virtual celebrations.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mark Drakeford said when he met with ministers from the other devolved nation governments they "agreed some broad parameters on Wednesday and remitted officials of all four administrations to work now on the detail".

He added that he is "hopeful that it will be possible to reach a four-nation approach to Christmas", especially on aspects like travel.

"I certainly think that is the right thing to do – if it is achievable," he said.

"Certainly Wales will be at the table next week looking to find an agreement."

Welsh Government have repeatedly said they hope to take a "four nations approach" to Christmas and recently announced plans for mass-testing to enable university students to travel home. A similar announcement was made for students in England.

Christmas attractions, one in Swansea and another in Cardiff, had to be cancelled recently because of coronavirus safety concerns. Credit: Visit Cardiff

Vaughan Gething also emphasised that mortality levels are already significant so the focus needs to be on what we are doing right now, "this isn't just about Christmas".

In Wales, the overall number of coronavirus cases has fallen by more than a fifth since the end of the firebreak but new cases are still emerging.

Public Health Wales data indicates that 2,307 people have died with coronavirus here. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that that number is actually over 3,000.