LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have felt that offering England a five-day Christmas break from pandemic restrictions would lift the national mood.
Experts warn, however, that this holiday gift is likely to become deadly.
It was a promise Johnson made three weeks ago as the Covid-19 cases fell through. He said up to three households would be able to mingle indoors for five days, ending Dec. 28. Now the cases are growing again and he opposes appeals for reconsideration.
This means that British Christmas rules will be more lenient than in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, which have recently tightened restrictions – even though cases in the UK are growing faster than in any of those countries, according to data. analyzed by Oxford University.
The government is already under intense control over what many say has been a repeated mishandling of the crisis. More than 66,000 people have died – leaving the UK with one of the highest per capita deaths in the world.
This week, about two-thirds of the country – about 38 million people – were placed on “level 3” restrictions or very high alerts. This means that groups of up to six people can only mingle in public spaces, not in private gardens, and bars and restaurants must close, except for deliveries.
Experts say that the sudden shift from these measures to relaxed Christmas restrictions will lead to more cases, more restrictions in the new year and, inevitably, more deaths.
“The government has been too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn. It should now reverse its hasty decision to allow households to mix,” the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal said in a joint editorial this week.
It was only the second time in the 100-year history of publications that they collaborated on an op-ed.
“We are publishing it because we believe the government is about to turn into another major mistake that will cost many lives,” they said. “If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to protect the NHS.”
Protecting the NHS – the beloved but pressured National Health Service in the UK – was a mantra for the government and citizens alike during the pandemic. A prominent supporter is Justin Bieber, who teamed up with a choir of health workers from Lewisham and the Greenwich NHS Trust in south London for a charity Christmas single.
Five years ago, they were rivals for the Christmas song no. 1 in the UK, before 26-year-old Bieber urged his fans to buy the NHS single instead. He said in a statement that he was “humiliated” to work with those “at the forefront of this pandemic and pay tribute to their incredible dedication.”
However, many doctors on the ground accuse Johnson’s government of not taking the necessary steps. Ambulances were seen lined up outside hospitals, many of which had to cancel surgeries and other noncoronavirus activities because their beds filled up.
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“It’s a really worrying sign that hospitals say they may not be able to cope,” said Rowland Kao, a professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh. “That makes epidemiologists very concerned.”
But most likely the government is not only facing the policies that would work best in theory, Kao said, but also the willingness of the people to follow them.
Johnson’s government has been accused of imposing restrictions too late; to foster personal contacts of cabinet ministers and parliamentarians when awarding lucrative medical contracts; and hypocrisy, refusing to fire Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s top adviser, for example, after leading the entire country during the blockade, despite feeling ill.
“It is clear that there have been events in the last year that have made the government less trustworthy in the eyes of the public,” Kao said. This Christmas, the government should consider “what is the inherent ability to listen and what level of confidence you need to promote these things,” he said.
A YouGov poll for the British newspaper The Times suggested that about 1 in 4 people would be willing to break even the rules that were imposed, either by including an extra household or by staying an extra day.
When Johnson announced his Christmas break three weeks ago, cases fell during Britain’s second nationwide deadlock. Now, December 25 is a week away, and the system of regional restrictions on levels does not seem to diminish the recurrence of the virus.
Wales and Northern Ireland, which run their own healthcare systems, have announced that they will immediately be blocked on 28 December. Scotland intends to do the same.
This meant that Johnson and his advisers were in a curious position to advise people to think twice before following their own government rules.
The prime minister said three households should be considered a “maximum”, and his chief doctor, Chris Whitty, compared the situation on Wednesday to driving at full speed on an icy highway: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Proponents of Johnson’s policy say many people would be willing to accept the risks of spending Christmas with their families after a dark year. They claim that making a last-minute return would also cause chaos for many families who have booked car and train rentals.
“Relying on people to make their own decisions is a rational approach and helps to extinguish hysteria around this issue,” said the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing newspaper that used to carry a Johnson column and is often sympathetic to The Conservative prime minister said in an editorial.