Normal Christmas is ‘wishful thinking’ unless action is taken – Sage scientist

The idea that “we can carry on as we are” and have a normal Christmas “is wishful thinking in the extreme”, a Government scientific adviser has said.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said “radical action” would be needed to stem the rise in coronavirus cases, particularly in regions with high incidence of the virus.

It comes after Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said he hoped families would be able to spend Christmas together even if things are not exactly the same.

Budget 2020
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said Christmas would be a ‘shared endeavour for all of us’ (Victoria Jones/PA)

Asked how he would describe the chances of people having a “normal Christmas” despite Covid-19 restrictions, Mr Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I would describe it as a shared endeavour for all of us.

“All of us want to be able to enjoy Christmas with our families. And that’s why there is a common purpose here to get the virus down.”

Referring to Christmas, Mr Barclay said: “I think few people expect it to be exactly as it would normally because we will be living with this virus for some time.

“And the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser have been very clear on that.

“But, your point really was about the ability of families to spend Christmas together – that is something we all hope to be in a position to do.”

However, Prof Edmunds, who told MPs on Wednesday that tens of thousands of deaths could occur during this wave of the pandemic, said further measures are needed to bring cases down.

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He told the PA news agency that a circuit-breaker is needed across the whole country or at least in areas where incidence is high.

“The only way that we can have a relatively safe and normal Christmas is if we take radical action now to reduce incidence – at the very least in high incidence areas – and keep the incidence low across the country by implementing a package of measures to reduce social contacts,” he said.

“The notion that we can carry on as we are and have a Christmas that we can celebrate normally with friends and family is wishful thinking in the extreme.”

On Friday, sweeping new restrictions were imposed on millions more people, with Greater Manchester moving into the highest alert level, Tier 3, and Wales  introducing its two-week “firebreak” lockdown at 6pm.

Coventry, Stoke and Slough will enter Tier 2 on Saturday, while talks between Westminster and civic leaders in Nottingham over possible Tier 3 restrictions were continuing on Friday.

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Asked about an estimated three million freelance and self-employed people who have “fallen through the cracks” and been unable to claim on Government support schemes, Mr Barclay told BBC Breakfast there is a balance between the speed of introducing programmes and controls to protect against fraud.

He said: “In terms of the ‘excluded’ campaign, which I know is an extremely contentious issue, if you look at the National Audit Office (NAO) report published today, what the NAO, which is independent of Government, says is that the Government deserves credit for the speed at which we brought forward schemes.

“But there is a balance between that speed and ensuring we have the right safeguards in place to prevent risk of fraud. It’s about getting that balance right.

“It’s not if someone doesn’t qualify for one scheme, they don’t get any support at all, because there is a comprehensive package of measures, business grants, tax deferrals, business rate loans, mortgage holidays, ensuring people who couldn’t afford their rent were protected.”

Pressed on whether the Government would reconsider its position on free school meals during holidays after sharp criticism from footballer Marcus Rashford, Mr Barclay said: “We keep all issues under review.”

Labour has called on the Government to clear up “confusion” on new plans to help businesses deal with coronavirus restrictions.

The Chancellor still hasn’t come clean on the phantom funding formula he’s using to determine funding for areas under tier 3 restrictions.

We need clear, consistent and fair funding for jobs and businesses, not playing poker with people’s livelihoods. pic.twitter.com/4dRzdk7F31

— Anneliese Dodds (@AnnelieseDodds) October 23, 2020

Chancellor Rishi Sunak needs to clarify how long elements of the package will be in place for, said shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said.

She told the BBC: “The Chancellor suggested that a number of these measures will apply, he stated, for six months.

“He has set out that approach for some elements of his plan, but there is a lot of confusion around other elements, whether they’re short-term, long-term, what exactly the score is.”

On the gaps in support, she said: “We didn’t really see any recognition of that, I think that’s very problematic.

“If people got a little bit of savings, which a lot of self-employed people do have, then they get knocked out of that support very quickly, they have to wait for five weeks.

“The Chancellor could’ve fixed that yesterday (Thursday) but he decided not to do that unfortunately.”

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Under Tier 3 measures in Greater Manchester, pubs and bars will be closed, unless they are serving substantial meals, for a 28-day period, along with casinos, bingo halls and bookies.

Mr Sunak announced an emergency multibillion-pound bailout on Thursday aimed at supporting workers and firms through the second coronavirus wave.

The Job Support Scheme, which replaces the current furlough system from November 1, will be made more generous in an effort to persuade firms to keep staff in work.

There will also be grants of up to £2,100 a month available for firms in Tier 2 areas of England, aimed at helping hospitality and leisure venues which have seen takings plummet due to restrictions on households mixing.

The package could cost the Exchequer around £13 billion over six months.

It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that the Test and Trace system, which he previously promised would be “world-beating”, needs to be improved.

He said on Thursday that turnaround times for tests need to be faster, after it emerged that just one in seven people having a test at a centre get their result back in 24 hours.

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