Covid-19 “doesn’t care if it is Christmas”, a top public health expert has said.
Professor Devi Sridhar’s comments came as officials from the four UK nations try to concoct a coherent plan to allow families to reunite at Christmas.
Prof Sridhar, who is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said it was “risky” for people to meet indoors – particularly when there are elderly relatives around and alcohol could be involved.
But she said recent vaccine breakthroughs could mean the country is in a “fundamentally different” position in March.
“People emotionally want to hear reassuring messages,” she told a joint meeting of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.
“They wanted to hear it over the summer that there would be no second wave, and they want to hear it now that Christmas will be normal.
“I guess I have to speak bluntly – the virus doesn’t care if it’s Christmas.
“We still have pretty high prevalence across the country.
“It is risky for people to mix indoors with alcohol with elderly relatives at this point in time.”
But Prof Sridhar added: “We have vaccines, three really exciting vaccines on the horizon. We have mass testing coming on board – I think Liverpool shows the promise, and Slovakia as well has been doing quite well with mass testing.
“We have new therapeutics meaning if you get Covid today, you’re much more likely to survive than six months ago – project that six months into the future.
“So I think for people there is a glimmer of hope I think by March, we’ll be in a fundamentally different position than now.”
She said: “So perhaps this Christmas will be different, it doesn’t mean Christmas is cancelled.
“It’s a pandemic Christmas – we’re in the middle of a pandemic, every part of the world is suffering or under some kind of restrictions, one way or the other.
“And so I think that was kind of a message we need to tell people that just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean the virus is any less risky.”
Prof Sridhar said the British public have not had a “payoff” for their sacrifices during the crisis as seen in some other countries.
“It feels like for a lot of people this is going on, it’s endless, they were willing to sacrifice in the spring to save the NHS. What are we doing now?” she said.
“The countries that suppressed/eliminated/took a zero-Covid approach, their populations got a payoff – New Zealand had a really hard lockdown for three weeks but they got back to their big rugby games. Norway and Finland had early harsh lockdowns but then they released most of the restrictions.
“And I feel like with the British public, they haven’t had that payoff.
“They haven’t had that moment of release of ‘your sacrifice has led to a state where actually, you get back your jobs and you get back your life’.”
But when asked what she would advise in terms of Christmas, Prof Sridhar added: “What I would say to people, because I get asked all the time, is ‘Do you want to infect the people that you love, or be responsible in your home or bring it into their home over Christmas?’
“We’re in a pandemic, you can still see your family, you can still celebrate with your communities but in safer ways.
“If you’re going to be inside, ventilate, open your windows, make sure there’s plenty of air circulation.
“You know, if you’re going to see elderly or vulnerable individuals, you can isolate for two weeks, if you’re able to, so you’re not going to expose them.
“If you really want to be extra cautious, there’s, you know, rapid tests you can take in addition to the incubation period.
“But we are in a pandemic and I think people need to recognise that it’s not going to be a normal Christmas – Christmas isn’t cancelled – but it’s going to feel substantially different.
“We don’t want to pay for Christmas with January hospitalisations and February deaths.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Christmas would not look the same as normal.
When asked whether the focus on Christmas could be perceived to be “unfair” to people wanting to focus on other festivities such as Diwali, Mr Hancock told MPs: “I’m very sensitive to this point, and we did think about it and we engaged and we have discussed it.
“The conclusion that we’ve come to, which I agree with very strongly, is that Christmas as a national holiday is the biggest national holiday that we have.
“Of course it has particular importance for Christians, but it is an important national holiday for everybody in this country.
“So while of course we considered the impact on those of other faiths, Christmas is a special time for everyone in this country.”
Prof Sridhar also raised concerns about the new plans to see those in close contact with confirmed Covid-19 cases tested every day instead of automatic self-isolation.
“I’m slightly worried about saying we can just lift isolation, because we know that isolation is important that people don’t pass it on to others,” she said.
“So I think there are still things we need to sort.”