Health Secretary Matt Hancock has suggested the government will not stop households from meeting up over Christmas despite rising COVID-19 infection rates in some parts of the country.
Speaking after he announced London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire are to be placed into the toughest coronavirus measures, Mr Hancock said the government did not rule out further action in a bid to depress the virus.
“We know from experience that the best thing to do in the face of this virus is to act fast, not to wait to see its growth continue – and we do not rule out further action,” the health secretary told a Downing Street news conference.
Mr Hancock suggested people should refrain from too much social mixing now, ahead of seeing elderly relatives at Christmas.
But, quizzed repeatedly on whether the government would rethink its plans to allow up to three households to gather indoors over the festive period, the health secretary gave no hint of a coming U-turn and would only urge people to be “careful and responsible”.
“Our message around Christmas is really clear,” Mr Hancock said.
“We understand why people want to see their loved ones, especially at this time of year, especially after this year – we all feel that.
“But it also must be done in a way that is careful and responsible. And I think people understand that too. That’s why we’ve taken the approach that we have.
“But if you are planning to meet up with loved ones at Christmas, then being careful now two weeks ahead – and making sure you minimise the chance of both catching the disease and passing it on – is the right thing to do.
“Actually, that’s the right thing to do all of the time.”
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, admitted that the relaxation of COVID rules over Christmas would lead to a rise in infections.
“All of this is about balancing the wider needs of society with the need to keep the virus under control,” he said.
“The relatively modest, actually, relaxation over Christmas will, undoubtedly, put upward pressure on the virus.”
“We know that… but the feeling was this is a very important time for many families.”
Prof Whitty urged people to use the relaxation of COVID rules over Christmas in a “minimalist, responsible way” in order to keep the number of cases down in early January, adding: “The key thing is people have just got to be sensible.”
Asked if Britons should be self-isolating between now and Christmas, if they were planning to see elderly relatives, Mr Hancock replied: “The best thing you can do, if you want to see elderly relatives at Christmas, is to be extremely careful now about who you see.”
Earlier on Monday, in the House of Commons, Mr Hancock came under pressure from some MPs to review the relaxation of coronavirus measures over Christmas.
Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood said he was concerned that “letting down our guard for five days during Christmas could be very dangerous indeed”, while the Liberal Democrats’ Munira Wilson highlighted the “alarming numbers” from the US following the Thanksgiving holiday.
Meanwhile, outside of the Commons, theatre star Elaine Paige – who is part of the cast of Pantoland at the London Palladium, which will now be forced to close – called for the government to “cancel Christmas” instead of shutting down hospitality in Tier 3 areas.
She tweeted: “Theatres ARE safe. [Culture Secretary] Oliver Dowden saw it for himself. And yet tubes & flights still allowed? These rules are illogical.
“The audience response shows how desperate they are for 2hrs of escapism. If its so terrible – cancel Christmas!”
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