Kate Andrews

No. 10’s Christmas trade-offs

No. 10's Christmas trade-offs
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The government’s Covid-19 strategy is designed to keep Christmas gatherings on the cards. But what might be the trade-offs? At this morning’s Downing Street press conference on Covid-19 data, Public Health England's Dr Susan Hopkins and deputy chief scientific adviser professor Dame Angela McLean gave some indication of what tactics could be used to make Christmas week feel as normal as possible.

Dr Hopkins referenced Sage advice, suggesting that ‘for every day we release, we’ll need two days of tighter restrictions'. (Public Health England has since issued a correction to this statement, saying every day of 'release' will require five days of increased restrictions.) If this advice were adopted by government this could mean another round of lockdowns — or increased restrictions — less than a month after England is set to exit its second lockdown. If rules are relaxed around the Christmas holiday, Dr Hopkins said that ‘we’ll all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again’ after the break. But would it really be left to us to practice personal responsibility or would laws be used to enforce reduced contact?

The deadline for England to exit lockdown on the 2 December was also called into question, as Dr Hopkins argued that keeping the infection rate low before Christmas is just as vital as reducing it after the holidays: ‘What’s really important is that we go into a festive week, when we want to mix with our friends and our family, with the number of infections in the community as low as possible.’

McLean pointed to the tension between activities in the run-up to Christmas and keeping the infection rate down. She said she found the bump in retail activity just before shops were forced to close for the second lockdown ‘worrying’, noting that it would be important to have a policy that ensured a ‘safe run-up to Christmas’. But a crackdown on retail and leisure next month could have serious economic consequences, risking a bigger economic contraction (and more business closures) if shops cannot operate during their busiest time of the year.

And what of the tier system, set to return when England’s lockdown ends? Today’s advisers heavily implied that the tiers are set to become stricter, referencing ‘new tiers’ and a redesign of the old system. But perhaps the changes won’t be as extreme as originally thought. ‘When I look at the north west and the north east, when I look at what’s happened with the ONS surveys there, I see interventions that have worked. I see epidemics that are flattening. There is some good news there.’

Her comments came after a slideshow presentation that showed infections slowing in hard-hit places before lockdown measures came into effect: ‘even before national restrictions were brought in, in the parts of the country where the amount of infection was already very high, the progress of the epidemic had already flattened off,’ including in the north west and Yorkshire. Such indicators might lead the government to consider how restrictions in those areas were working – primarily with a focus on household mixing – before they tighten the rules further.