Socialising over Christmas, particularly with those most vulnerable to Covid, will be “very risky” and threatens to put further pressure on hospital beds this winter, NHS bosses have warned.
Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said relaxing restrictions over the festive period would leave some people with the mistaken view that there was no greater risk from having more social contact.
“I don’t want to be the Grinch who stole Christmas, I really don’t, but I think everybody needs to think really, really carefully what are they going to do over Christmas,” Hopson told BBC Breakfast. “It’s not, ‘is what we’re going to be doing sticking within the rules?’ It’s ‘how much risk are we going to cause to the people we interact with?’”
Hopson said the NHS was worried about its capacity to treat a surge in the number of patients over the winter months, citing as causes for concern “record numbers” in the US after the Thanksgiving holiday and rising infections in London, Essex, and parts of Kent and Lincolnshire.
Under a temporary easing of coronavirus restrictions from 23-27 December, up to three households will be allowed to form a “bubble”, mix indoors and stay overnight, but Hopson warned that any increase in socialising was risky.
“There seems to be a sense at the moment that, hey, because the government’s put these rules down, there’s no risk to people having more social contact over Christmas,” he said. “But any kind of extra social contact over Christmas – particularly with those who are vulnerable to the virus – is very risky.”
His comments come days after England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned of a “disastrous” third wave of infections if people became complacent about the virus now that the mass vaccination programme had begun. Some government advisers have already urged people to ignore the easing of Covid rules over Christmas amid fears that cases will soar.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Prof Sarah Gilbert, the leader of Oxford University’s vaccine project, said there was a “pretty high” chance of the jab being rolled out before the end of the year.
Results from clinical trials of the vaccine are being pored over by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which is expected to approve the vaccine soon. Unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which has already been granted an emergency use licence and must be stored at temperatures below -70C, the Oxford vaccine can be kept at normal fridge temperatures, making it far simpler to distribute.
“Really what we need to do is have a lot of people vaccinated with the vaccines, so that we really interrupt the ability of the virus to move between people, and that’s when we’ll start to see transmission tail off completely,” Gilbert said.
On Sunday, NHS England said a further 159 patients had died from Covid, bringing the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 44,285.
In several London boroughs, including Havering, Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge and Waltham Forest, the seven-day rolling infection rates are close to, or more than, double the England average of 153 cases per 100,000 people.
On Wednesday, ministers will decide whether to impose further restrictions on the whole, or parts of, the capital. Some scientists on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) believe London should have been in tier 3 since the last lockdown ended.
Interviewed on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, defended the loosening of restrictions over Christmas.
“I think people do need that five-day window over Christmas to spend a bit of time with their loved ones and I think at a mental health level, an emotional level, people do need it,” he said.