As the country moves into the third week of the month-long ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown, and with Christmas just over a month away, what’s December likely to look like across the country? Written by Christopher J. B. Calderón
There are cautious noises coming out of Westminster, with Communities Minister Robert Jenrick saying on Tuesday that government “are reviewing the tiers, so that when the national measures come to an end on December 2nd, we’re able to move the country, we hope, back into the tiered structure.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was similarly cagey, telling the nation via one of his now-ubiquitous COVID briefings that “it’s too early for [government] to know what the number of cases will be as we come to the end of the current lockdown, but we absolutely hope to be able to replace the national lockdown with a tiered system similar to what we had before.”
This is an altogether more guarded tone than was being struck by Boris Johnson at the start of the month; when speaking on the eve of the renewed lockdown, the PM had sought to reassure the public that government “will end these autumn measures on December 2 when they expire.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had gone even further: asked on LBC radio whether people in England could mark out December 2nd in their calendars as the definitive end-date to the heightened restrictions, he was unequivocal: “Put it in your diary, it is written into law.”
While it’s true that the law as established in the November 4 Commons vote only covers up to December 2, this of course doesn’t preclude government from putting the question of an extension to MPs in the form of another vote. And as unlikely as this is, given that the PM spent much of the last several months vehemently denying the need for a second lockdown only to do a sudden U-turn on the issue, it can’t be completely ruled-out.
Medical chiefs for their part have been a lot clearer, the consensus being that, even with the end to the second lockdown likely to happen on December 2 as advertised, we won’t be seeing a return to the 3-tier restrictions in the same form as they appeared after the easing of the first lockdown back in July.
Speaking on Tuesday, Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins, who is advising the
government’s COVID-19 response, said they would have to consider strengthening the measures “to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone”.
And on the same day, the British Medical Association launched a “blueprint for leaving lockdown”, in which it outlined a 3-phase plan it believes ministers should follow in order to consolidate the gains made this month.
In it, the body stressed the “need to learn the lessons after the first lockdown, where rapid relaxation of infection control policies, inadequate monitoring and encouragement to socially mix in restaurants and bars and to return to work resulted in a surge of virus spread, leaving us unprepared to face autumn and winter.”
At the center of the plan is a proposed replacement of the ‘rule-of-six’ – in which six members of six different households could meet at a given time – with a maximum of two households mixing per day. It also suggests a travel ban between areas in different tiers, as well as a “reformed and revamped” test and trace system that “is fit for purpose.”
While these plans are likely to be taken up in some form, the government will struggle to strike a balance between ensuring public safety and allowing families to spend Christmas together, with many desperate to do so after having been forced to spend much of the year apart. Ministers’ fears of losing public goodwill over the issue were neatly summed up by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s insistence that he didn’t want to be “the Grinch that stole Christmas.”
To that end, ministers are reportedly considering lifting restrictions on household mixing for a five-day period between Thursday, December 24 and Monday December 28, allowing families to gather indoors over Christmas. This has not been well-received by many in healthcare, with Professor David Scally’s view that “there is no point in having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February“ being typical across the profession.
And any hopes that a vaccine may have provided a magic bullet for the government in navigating these conflicting pressures have proven unrealistic: while the treatments produced by Pfizer and Moderna have both scored at an impressive 95% efficacy in the latest rounds of clinical trials, neither are set to roll-out in any significant quantities until the new year.
In the meantime, ministers will likely have to make a choice between angering their medical advisors, or incurring the wrath of the public at large. If they don’t choose, they may very well end up angering both.