The British government and also, to a large extent, the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have all resisted calls for them to abandon plans to relax Covid restrictions over Christmas despite the fact that in many parts of the country the pandemic is getting worse not better. Rather than use the force of the law to ensure we all keep apart from each other over the festive season, government is telling us that whilst it won’t try to stop us from meeting our families and friends, it nonetheless strongly urges us not to make use of the temporary freedom it’s granting. In short, it’s handing the decision over to us, while crossing its fingers that we’ll act responsibly. But if we don’t, there’s a real risk of a third wave of the virus early next year, of an even more severe lockdown in January and of a crisis in the NHS at his busiest time of year. So is the government right to leave it in our hands, or should it be imposing tougher restrictions even over Christmas to stop all this from happening?
The history of government response to the Covid pandemic has been one of sharp use of the brake, gentle use of the accelerator, then more brake, followed by a little more accelerator and so on. First we had the big lockdown before a gradual easing over the summer when we were even bribed to ‘eat out to help out’. Then came the ‘Tier’ system when different severities of new restriction were imposed according to the virulence of the pandemic in different parts of the country. When that failed to do the trick we had a second national lockdown followed by a gradual toughening of the Tier system. Within all this, Christmas was always going to be a bit of a problem because it’s the time of year more than any other when families travel to get together with each other and social mixing is the norm.
Back in the autumn, when the outlook was rosier, the Westminster government and the devolved assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast agreed that there should be a five day ‘breather’ over Christmas, during which it would be possible for limited numbers of family members to meet to celebrate. It was always a bit of risk not least because Christmas family get-togethers involve a mixing of generations – grandkids away at university come home to pass on whatever they unwittingly have caught to vulnerable grandparents. But back then it seemed a risk worth taking.
Since then, however, prospects have darkened. In late November and early December parts of the country that had previously enjoyed the middling ‘Tier 2’ status found that the incidence of the virus spreading in their area was on the rise and so the government had to ‘up’ them to ‘Tier 3’. Such was the alarm at the way everything seemed to be going in the wrong direction that at the beginning of this week the two major health journals, the BMJ and the Health Service Journal, published a joint editorial saying it would be ‘a major error’ to go ahead with the temporary lightening of restrictions over Christmas. Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers, which represents NHS hospitals among other bodies, said that managers were ‘seriously worried’ about the risk of a third surge of Covid cases after a Christmas relaxation and urged the government ‘to take a safety first approach’. Others piled on the pressure for government to reapply the brakes and call off the five-day easing.
But on Wednesday, after discussion between all four governments, it was announced that the easing would go ahead. The law would not be changed to force people to keep apart over Christmas but the public would be issued with new guidance in effect not to make full use of the temporary freedom. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, urged people to ‘exercise personal responsibility’ and to behave with ‘extreme caution’, adding: ‘Have yourselves a merry little Christmas. And I’m afraid this year I do mean little’.
The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, said that allowing mixing to go ahead was the government’s ‘next big mistake’. The authors of the BMJ/HSJ joint leader had said that any significant third wave of the virus resulting from too much freedom being exercised over Christmas would wipe out twenty years of progress in bringing down hospital waiting times.
It is not as if Mr Johnson, in taking this decision, had advance information that the virus was about to go into retreat. Quite the contrary. The following day his health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced a toughening up of the application of the Tier system. Even more of southern and eastern England was to be upped into ‘Tier 3’ from this coming Saturday, four days before the national Christmas easing; areas of the north of England, which had hoped to be ‘downed’ to ‘Tier 2’ were told they had to stay where they were, despite the easing of the pandemic in their areas, and only two areas of England had their Tier status relaxed. As a result of these changes, 68% of England will approach Christmas in ‘Tier 3’, 30% in ‘Tier 2’ and only 2% in the relatively relaxed ‘Tier 1’. Mr Hancock explained that this greater severity was due to a 46% rise in new cases in south east England in the last week, and a two-thirds increase in eastern England. Hospital admission have been rising accordingly.
So, in the light of this general worsening of the situation, why has the government decided to go ahead with the easing of restrictions over Christmas? Mr Johnson gave one answer. He said it would be ‘frankly inhumane and against the instincts of many people in this country’ for the government to throw its weight about and make it criminal for people to do what they have been doing since time immemorial. In short, it was simply a matter of freedom and of the limits of what government should and shouldn’t consider it legitimate to do. He clearly didn’t want to follow the example of Oliver Cromwell who (allegedly) ‘banned’ Christmas back in 1650.
If this were his main reason, many people would respond by tearing their hair out. The government’s prime job, they’d retort, is to protect the public. That means promoting public health. The virus is, as we have already seen, a massive threat not just to public health but to the very working of our health system which can so easily be overrun. So it is the government’s duty, they’d say, to protect us from ourselves by using the law to force us, for once, not to celebrate Christmas and to risk criminal conviction if we defy it.
However, Mr Johnson’s ‘freedom’ argument may not have been the main reason he blanched from calling a halt to the Christmas break in restrictions. It is reported that his panel of scientific advisers, SAGE, was split on the advice it gave. John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a member of SAGE, explained the dilemma. He said: ‘The Christmas relaxation is a balance. From a purely epidemiological standpoint we should not relax our guard at Christmas, particularly as the prevalence of Covid in the community remains dangerously high. On the other hand, it is clear that many people intend to meet up with friends and family over the holiday period, so the current rules are an attempt to find a balance between the urge to see our loved ones and the need to control transmission. Just because we can meet up with two other households, it doesn’t mean that we should.’
Another way of putting it would be to say that any legal attempt to ‘ban’ Christmas get-togethers would probably lead to mass disobedience, a collapse of trust in government and an upsurge in the spread of the virus anyway. Or to put it even more brutally, although government may have the power to pass any law it likes, it doesn’t have the power to enforce it. So don’t try. Much better, it’s argued to leave people to make their own choices but to urge them very strongly to act responsibly. In other words: ‘trust the people’.
What remains to be seen is whether the people can be trusted or whether we are facing the prospect of a very difficult January and February that would have occurred whether the government had rescinded the Christmas easing or not. The government, relatively powerless to act, could be said to be left simply crossing its fingers.
So do you think the government is right or not to go ahead with the relaxation of Covid restrictions over Christmas, relying instead on strong advice to prevent a third wave in the New Year? And do you think the public will act ‘responsibly’ or do you fear that a third wave is now inevitable?
Let us know your views.