Relaxing Christmas rules a 'major blunder that will cost many lives', medical journals warn in rare joint statement

Ross McGuinness
Two family members in surgical masks toast at the Christmas Thanksgiving table at home in the year of the Coronavirus. Happy family members wear surgical masks to comply with new health regulations.
Doctors have warned about relaxing coronavirus restrictions at Christmas. (Getty)

The relaxing of coronavirus restrictions across the UK at Christmas is a “blunder” that “will cost many lives”, doctors have warned.

In a rare and extremely damning joint editorial on Tuesday, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Health Service Journal (HSJ) warned that the government’s Christmas bubble plan is “rash”.

Up to three families can form a Christmas bubble to meet in a private home between 23 and 27 December (22 and 28 December in Northern Ireland) despite escalating COVID-19 cases and the emergence of a new strain linked to faster spread of the disease.

However, other tier restrictions on socialising will still apply over the period.

BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee and HSJ editor Alastair McLellan explained why their two publications had issued only their second joint editorial in more than 100 years.

Watch: Hancock says ‘further action’ may be needed to halt COVID

“We are publishing it because we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives,” they wrote.

“If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be protecting the NHS.”

The pair wrote: “When government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the COVID-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing.

“But it is not, it is rising, and the emergence of a new strain of the virus has introduced further potential jeopardy.

“Members of the public can and should mitigate the impact of the third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months. But many will see the lifting of restrictions over Christmas as permission to drop their guard.

“The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn.

“It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave.”

The government insists its Christmas rules will not change despite rising COVID rates in parts of the UK, but it is under increasing pressure from scientists who forecast the easing will lead to another spike in cases.

On Monday, health secretary Matt Hancock said the Christmas bubbles plan would go ahead, although he said the government would “not rule out further action”.

Earlier, he had told the House of Commons that rising infections in the South East may be in part due to a newly-identified variant of coronavirus which is growing faster than the existing one.

He said the new strain had been detected in more than 60 areas, adding that it is “growing rapidly”.

Hancock said: "Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants."

Doctors have questioned going ahead with the Christmas easing following the emergence of the new variant of coronavirus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing on coronavirus (COVID-19) in Downing Street, London.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has insisted the government's Christmas bubble plan will go ahead, but hasn't ruled out 'further action'. (PA)

Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor working for the NHS, tweeted: “If a new variant of COVID-19 is spreading more rapidly than before, then why on earth is the government still permitting three families to mingle for five days over Christmas?”

Former government chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “I think the consequences are obvious – an increase in numbers and the need for a more prolonged social distancing, and Tier 3 measures in parts of the country after Christmas.”

Sage member Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, told BBC Breakfast: “If you do go round and camp in granny and grandpa’s house for five days, that’s going to be dreadful.

“If they go round for the Christmas meal, then perhaps the family should be doing the cooking and the washing up and treating granny and grandpa like the king and queen.

“But if they do do lots of hugs and kisses, then the virus will spread.

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The Tier 3 COVID lockdown rules explained

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“If you stop your lockdown, stop your tiers, have huge amounts of social interaction, there will be a rise in cases.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan called on the government to look again at the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas.

“Many of us could have the virus without realising it,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“What would be really heartbreaking is if you inadvertently passed on the virus to an older relation that could well lose their lives. How would you feel if you did that?”

Watch: ‘Government should rethink Christmas rules’

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