Downing Street has insisted the Christmas relaxation of social distancing rules will go ahead despite increasing warnings that it will lead to a rise in coronavirus cases.
Number 10 stressed on Monday that the public should remain “jolly careful” over the festive period but said there are no plans to review the guidance after a “very difficult year for many people”.
Concerns were mounting, however, of a fresh spike in Covid-19 cases from the UK-wide relaxation to allow bubbles of up to three households between December 23 and 27.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said staying away from loved ones could be “the best Christmas gift” this year and chief medical officer for Wales Dr Frank Atherton issued a stark warning “to save lives now, don’t mix with other people”.
“Don’t put yourself and your family at risk for the sake of tradition,” he said on Monday.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said No 10 was not reconsidering the relaxation.
“There are no plans to review the Christmas guidance. What we’ve said alongside that is that the public should continue to be cautious,” he said.
“We’ve been clear that it’s a limited easement to allow families to bubble over the Christmas period after what has been a very difficult year for many people. But it remains important for the public to follow the guidance.”
She advised people to “start thinking about reducing unnecessary contact” with others if they are going to meet loved ones over the festive period.
But the First Minister added: “This year I think it is the case that the best Christmas gift we can give family and friends is as far as possible to keep our distance and keep them safe.”
Last week, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned the public to be “very, very sensible” and not go “too far” over Christmas.
He told a Downing Street briefing that just because limited mixing will be permitted “that doesn’t mean we should do things” as he warned of a “very risky period”.
On Monday, Professor Devi Sridhar pointed to a surge in cases in the United States following Thanksgiving, suggesting plans should be shelved until vaccines are widely rolled out and immunity is built up.
The chair of global public health at Edinburgh University told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “This is the worry about Christmas because once you enter somebody’s home, you’re probably going to get the virus if someone else there has it.”
She added: “NHS staff are exhausted, they are begging people to be cautious, to not get infected, because they’re the ones in the end who have to be showing up in hospital on Christmas Day, on Boxing Day and New Year’s and actually having to take care of everyone that comes through.”
However, public health professor Paul Hunter said gatherings were a “tolerable risk”, adding that shops and schools would be closed over the festive period and people will not be going to work, all driving down the risk of transmission.
“It does carry with it a risk but looking at the other side of things, January is generally a very bad month for people’s mental health,” the University of East Anglia academic said.
“If being able to meet up in as safe a way as possible with your loved ones over Christmas gives you that extra strength to carry on until we’re able to get a lot more relaxed over spring, then I think that is a tolerable risk that I think we could accept.”