In 2020, after people across the country made plans to spend Christmas Day with family and friends, the government imposed last-minute restrictions that prevented the public from spending time with people outside their household. This came after the Alpha (or Kent) variant began spreading very rapidly.
What the prime minister says
Cancelling Christmas for a second year is “very much not the plan”, the prime minister said on arriving in the US for a three-day trip earlier this week.
But Johnson isn’t giving any guarantees about Covid guidelines either
“I just want to go back to what I said about plan A and plan B,” he said. “Plan A is what we’re on, and plan B is what we might have to do. It’s a graduated series of steps and we certainly don’t want or expect to have to do anything like last Christmas.”
Reminded of the joke he made last year about 2021 being a “two-turkey Christmas,” he said that people could defrost last year’s bird.
The government set out its “Plan A” for dealing with the pandemic through the autumn and winter earlier this month.
The plan involves booster jabs for over-50s and jabs for 12-15-year-olds. Ministers have also released a series of contingency plans, which include the potential to make masks mandatory again in some settings and reinstating some level of work-from-home advice.
It sound like the prime minister has some contingency on Christmas, too, but what do the experts make of our chances at an uninterrupted festive season? We asked them.
What the Covid-19 experts say
Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases and professor at the University of East Anglia, said it’s hard to know what will happen in three months when we’re struggling to know what the next three weeks will look like. However, he doesn’t think Christmas spent with loved ones this year is going to be at risk.
“It is nearly always the case that national holidays are associated with reduced case detection from a few days before till a few days after of any infectious disease,” he tells HuffPost UK. “If you don’t understand this then you can look at the following week and convince yourself there was a surge in infections.”
Hunter says this is unlikely. “As Neil Ferguson pointed out to a parliamentary committee, Christmas is usually associated with reduced mixing and so may even act as a break on transmission of respiratory viruses,” he adds.
Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist and associate professor at the University of Leicester doesn’t think we’ll see Covid restrictions during the Christmas period either. “People are starting to live with the virus now, accepting 20,000-30,000 new cases a day,” he says. “If this level of Covid-19 impact is acceptable and no other variants arise that exacerbate this (and accepting an inevitable increase in these numbers towards the festive period with increased crowding in shops and homes) then I don’t see Christmas being badly affected.”
Thanks to the vaccination rollout, Prof Hunter says the Covid picture looks very different from last year.
“We are in a much better position now with a lot more people having been vaccinated and many of the unvaccinated having already had an infection and recovered. So we may see some increase in cases as we move through autumn, but I doubt it will get anywhere near the same level of pressure as a year ago.”
Advice to bear in mind this Christmas
Tang still urges good sense and caution when visiting family and friends during the festive period. “The Delta variant can infect those with reduced antibody levels due to waning vaccine immunity or poor vaccine responses, but few will develop severe disease need hospitalisation,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“Bear in mind that breakthrough infections in older grandparents – perhaps exposed to unvaccinated primary school grandchildren – will have lost more antibodies (in the absence of a third dose booster jab) over time because they were vaccinated first, very early on in the UK vaccination programme, he adds.
If you’re worried about catching Covid during the winter season, continue following the general guidance by avoiding places with big crowds, wearing masks where appropriate, and washing your hands, says Prof Hunter.
He also urges the public to have their first and second vaccination and a flu jab and booster jab if offered for the best chance of protecting yourself and others.