UK urged to ax ‘rash’ easing of restrictions over Christmas

By PAN PYLAS for the Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — The British government faced mounting calls Tuesday to reassess its plans to ease coronavirus restrictions for a few days over Christmas, following a spike in new infections that will see tougher rules imposed on London and some surrounding areas.

People wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus as they walk past a pub in Soho, London, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. London and its surrounding areas will be placed under Britain’s highest level of coronavirus restrictions beginning Wednesday as infections rise rapidly in the capital, the health secretary said Monday, adding that a new variant of the virus may be to blame for the spread. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Leaders from across the U.K.’s four nations are holding a meeting later where the Christmas easing is expected to top the agenda. It is taking place after concerns were raised, including from two of the country’s leading medical journals, over the planned five-day easing that will permit three households to form a so-called bubble.

In only their second joint editorial in their more than 100-year histories, the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal urged a rethink of a “rash” decision that they said will “cost many lives.”

“We are publishing it because we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error,” they said.

Britain’s Conservative government, which devises the public health strategy for England, along with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, agreed last month to allow a maximum of three households to mix between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27, regardless of what local restrictions are in place.

But with new infections rising in many parts of the country, there are growing concerns that the government’s Christmas relaxation of restrictions will see a further escalation in infections and deaths and put too much pressure on the country’s already-stressed National Health Service.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, was one who called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call an emergency meeting to review the decision.

“I understand that people want to spend time with their families after this awful year, but the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse since the decision about Christmas was taken,” he said.

Any potential easing over Christmas contrasts with measures being taken by other European nations such as Germany and the Netherlands, which have announced sweeping new restrictions for the holidays.

The British government so far has resisted changing course, but it is trying to finesse its message.

Stephen Barclay, a Treasury minister, said it’s about “finding the right balance” between seeking to avoid criminalizing people while at the same time reminding everyone of the very real risks of the pandemic.

“It’s important people do the minimum that is possible,” he told Sky News.

When the Christmas easing was first announced last month, Johnson was careful to stress that households should be “jolly careful, especially with elderly relatives.”

However, that easing announcement was predicated on an assumption that new cases would be on a downward trajectory.

But new infections have been increasing again, with another 20,000 announced on Monday.

London on Wednesday will join other major cities in England, including Birmingham and Manchester, in the highest level of restrictions — Tier 3 — in which pubs and restaurants are closed apart from takeouts and deliveries. People in Tier 3 areas — which will soon include a majority of England’s population — are not allowed to meet socially in private or at most outdoor public venues with anybody they do not live with.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan was among those calling on the government to look again at its Christmas plans.

“The concern is this — the rules have been relaxed for five days, allowing household mixing for up to three different households and inevitably when people are in their own households, they tend to be less vigilant,” he told BBC Radio. “And my concern is that many people may have the virus and not realise it. They could pass the virus on to older relations.”