Normal Christmas would ‘throw fuel on the fire’ and trigger spike in Covid-19 cases, says scientist

Letting Britain have a near-normal Christmas would only ‘throw fuel on the fire’ and put older generations in harms way, a top scientist warned today as ministers admitted they ‘don’t want to be grinches’ but must ‘protect lives’. 

Number 10 is mulling over whether to allow up to four different households to mix for five days during the Christmas period – from December 24 to 28 – at the cost of a 25-day lockdown. 

But Professor Andrew Hayward, a SAGE member and infectious diseases expert at University College London, warned against the proposed plans today, saying they posed a ‘substantial’ risk of spreading the virus to the elderly for whom infection rates are ‘much lower’.

‘My personal view is we’re putting far too much emphasis on having a near normal Christmas,’ he said. ‘We know respiratory infections peak in January, so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this.’

Another top expert from the rival advisory group Independent SAGE, Professor Gabriel Scally, also advised against the scheme saying there was ‘no point’ in having a very merry Christmas only to ‘then bury friends and relations in January and February’.

The professor in public health at Bristol University added: ‘We need to think very seriously about Christmas and how we’re going to spend it. It’s too dangerous a time and opportunity for the virus to spread.’

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said today he did not want to be the ‘Grinch that stole Christmas’, but added the Government was also aiming to ‘protect lives’. He said: ‘Come December 2 the decisions will be made that we will try and get that balance right, but ultimately we will try and make sure we protect our NHS and safeguard lives.’

The Prime Minister has also said it is his ‘desire to try and allow loved ones to have Christmas together’ after a tumultuous year that has seen families kept apart for months on end. But yesterday he admitted it wouldn’t be a normal festive period this year.

The warning comes as Oxford University reveals its Covid-19 vaccine triggers a ‘robust’ response from the immune system and appears to work in older people, based on results from second-phase trials. The NHS could start giving a jab to healthcare workers and the elderly as soon as next month after Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines also said their shots had been shown to be effective in late-stage trials. 

Britain recorded 19,609 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, down from 2.2 per cent on the 20,051 announced on Tuesday and 14.6 per cent lower than the 22,950 figure last Wednesday. There were also 529 deaths, which is 11.5 per cent less than the 598 on Tuesday and 11.1 per cent smaller than the 595 a week ago. 

Professor Gabriel Scally, an expert in public health at Bristol University, said there was no point celebrating Christmas to 'bury' family and relations next year

Professor Gabriel Scally, an expert in public health at Bristol University, said there was no point celebrating Christmas to 'bury' family and relations next year

Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious diseases expert at University College London, said mixing at Christmas posed a 'substantial' risk to the elderly

Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious diseases expert at University College London, said mixing at Christmas posed a 'substantial' risk to the elderly

Warning against relaxing the rules over Christmas, Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious diseases expert at University College London, said mixing at Christmas posed a ‘substantial’ risk to the elderly. And Professor Gabriel Scally, an expert in public health at Bristol University, said there was no point celebrating Christmas to ‘bury’ family and relations next year

OXFORD’S JAB IS ‘SAFE AND PROVOKES A ROBUST IMMUNE RESPONSE’ IN OVER-60s

Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine triggers a ‘robust’ response from the immune system and appears to work in older people, a study revealed today in another leap towards ending the pandemic.

Scientists behind the project this morning published the results of an early trial of the jab, which found it created strong signs of immunity in 99 per cent of people.

The second-phase study included 560 people, most of whom were white and British, and showed that people across all age groups seemed to react equally well to the jab. It adds to data published in July suggesting it would work safely for under-55s. Studies of people with serious health conditions and other ethnicities are ongoing.

It marks another breakthrough in the race to develop a vaccine to prevent Covid-19, after jabs made by Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech were both revealed to be around 95 per cent effective within the past week.

Oxford’s results are from an earlier stage of testing so cannot estimate how well the vaccine protects against Covid, but are still a positive step. Detailed results about how well it works are expected within weeks, the university said.

The research showed that people in all age groups developed antibodies – virus-destroying substances made by the immune system – within 28 days of their first dose of the vaccine, and these were boosted further after the second dose.

It showed that the vaccine caused more side effects than a fake jab but that these were ‘mild’ and more common in young people than older participants.

Within the first week after having the injection more than eight out of 10 under-55s said their arm hurt and and they later experienced tiredness, muscle aches or headaches.

Britain has pre-ordered 100million doses of Oxford’s jab, which is being made with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, so if it works and can be manufactured fast enough it could be used to protect the majority of the UK’s population. 

Scientists today described the news as ‘promising’ and ‘positive’, adding that the UK’s order could be big enough to reach herd immunity if the vaccine comes good. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a tweet: ‘There is still much work to be done, but this is a really encouraging set of findings’. 

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In other coronavirus developments:

  • Conservative MPs pile pressure on the Government not to extend England’s lockdown, saying ‘freedom is not just for Christmas;
  • China says a Covid-19 study clears it of any blame over the pandemic because it found the virus was circulating in Italy in September last year;
  • Families of Royal Marines veteran, 89, and retired registrar, 88, killed by Covid-19 sue the Government claiming the rapid discharge of elderly patients from hospital caused deadly outbreaks;
  • Jaguar Land Rover orders staff to turn off NHS Covid-19 app at work to stop them having to self-isolate ‘unnecessarily’;
  • It emerges SAGE used data from Wikipedia to model Covid-19 outbreak in the spring and did not have a single Covid-19 expert in its ranks;
  • Danish study finds face masks do NOT protect the wearer from Covid-19 but will stop them from infecting other people.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Hayward said it would be ‘tragic’ to throw away the opportunity to protect those we love through vaccination and the gains made during lockdown by ‘trying to return to normality over the holidays’.

When asked whether the festive freedom would equal weeks of tighter restrictions for Britons, he said: ‘Well, I’m not a mathematical modeller but that’s the process that’s done. 

‘One looks at the contact rates across society and works out how many infections that would lead to and how many less contacts you would have during lockdown in order to achieve a normal Christmas. 

‘I think there is a cost but when policy is undulating between stay at home to save lives, eat out to help out, the tier system, the second lockdown and now proposals for an amnesty on social distancing, it’s a highly inconsistent message. 

‘Whereas, in fact, the things that people need to do to stay safe, and to keep their loved ones safe, are relatively simple. 

‘Avoid, as far as possible, indoor closed contact with people outside of your household, avoid crowded places and protect the most vulnerable by not putting them at unnecessary risk.’

But suggesting a glimmer of hope for some relaxation of rules over Christmas he said the ‘economy’ also needed to be considered by policymakers.

‘I think to a large extent it is, it is a very difficult balance.

‘We need to be very mindful of the fact that this last period of the year is absolutely critical economically for many businesses, so I think we do need to find a way of allowing them to function but in a responsible way that is highly socially distanced.’

Re-enforcing his comments against slackening restrictions over Christmas, Professor Scally tweeted: ‘We have not made nine months of sacrifices to throw it all away at Christmas.’

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace signalled on ITV’s Good Morning Britain today that the Government did not want to steal Christmas, but also wanted to protect people’s lives.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said today he didn't want to be the 'Grinch that stole Christmas', but added the Government remained focused on 'protecting' people's lives from the virus

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said today he didn't want to be the 'Grinch that stole Christmas', but added the Government remained focused on 'protecting' people's lives from the virus

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said today he didn’t want to be the ‘Grinch that stole Christmas’, but added the Government remained focused on ‘protecting’ people’s lives from the virus

He said: ‘I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Christmas – I’m not campaigning for that. 

‘I would love all of us to be able to have a Christmas, but more than anything I want us to get through this Covid and try and get this country back to normal and I want to protect lives.’

A health chief has warned England could face 25 days of extra restrictions for just five days of festive freedom in which Britons could throw off the lockdown shackles and gather indoors for celebrations.

Under plans being considered by ministers, churches are also expected to be allowed to hold Christmas Day services, with the Church of England saying ‘the message of light shining in the darkness’ is urgently needed.  

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, Public Health England’s top doctor Susan Hopkins said she believes ‘it is possible’ — though she warned that for every day measures are loosened, it will require five days of tighter restrictions to reverse the damage. 

But one Tory MP warned it would be better for the Prime Minister to cancel Christmas and be branded the ‘Grinch’ rather than risk a spike in Covid-19 deaths that could paint him as the ‘Grim Reaper’. They said: ‘He’s going to be blamed for it (a rise in deaths). It is always in mid to late January you get the NHS winter crisis.’

CHINA SAYS COVID-19 STUDY CLEARS IT OF ANY BLAME AFTER STUDY FOUND SIGNS OF VIRUS IN ITALY IN SEPTEMBER

China has claimed that a study which found traces of coronavirus in Italy in September last year clears it of blame for starting the pandemic.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said the study shows that the source of the virus is a ‘complex question’ that may ‘involve multiple countries’.

But Lijian’s conclusion was rubbished by the lead scientist involved in the study, Giovanni Apolone, who said his research does not rule out China.

 ‘We know that China delayed announcing its outbreak so there is no telling when it started there,’ he said – suggesting that the virus could have been circulating silently in China for longer than previously thought before being brought to northern Italy.

‘China has very strong commercial links with northern Italy,’ he told The Times.

This is not the first time that Lijian has tried to blame other countries for starting the pandemic, which has infected more than 55million and killed 1.3million.

He has previously suggested – without evidence – that US troops brought the virus to China, and that it may have been imported on food packaging.

Apolone’s study, carried out at Milan’s National Cancer Institute, looked at blood samples taken from patients involved in a cancer study.

A team of researchers examined the samples for antibodies that are produced when a patient comes into contact with the coronavirus.

To their surprise, they found antibodies in samples from 14 per cent of participants dating back to September 2019.

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Speaking at a Downing street briefing yesterday, PHE’s top medic Dr Hopkins said: ‘We are very keen that we have a Christmas as close to normal as possible. That requires all of us to make every effort over this national restriction period, and even in early December, to get the cases as low as possible and to reduce the risk of transmission within households and between families. 

‘A final decision, of course, will rest with the Government and we look forward to hearing what those plans are.’ 

Deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said SAGE had also been examining the potential relaxation of measures over Christmas. She told Wednesday’s conference: ‘We did send some advice in over the weekend. But we genuinely don’t know what decisions have been made.’  

The intention in Number 10 is clearly to deliver a Christmas as close to normal as possible, with Mr Johnson’s official spokesman telling the briefing: ‘I think the PM has been clear in his desire to try and allow families to have Christmas together. We accept it won’t be a normal Christmas but as I say the PM has been clear in his desire for families to be able to see each other.

‘I think the point I would make is we are taking the tougher measures now to drive down the level of transmission, to drive down the number of patients admitted to hospital and then ultimately, those who end up on ICU and sadly die.

‘We are taking these tougher measures now so that, as I say, the PM has given his clear intent to allow families to spend Christmas together.’

Emphasising the importance of driving down infections before Christmas in order to allow the relaxation of restrictions, Dr Hopkins said Britons should be ‘very careful’ about the number of contacts they have in order to reduce transmission before the festive period to ‘Get our cases as low as possible’.

Asked about what Christmas may look like, she told the Government data briefing: ‘This is a decision that will be made by Government and I know that they’re working hard to develop an outline of what that will look like and what the new tiers will look like post-December 2 and what Christmas will look like.’

She added: ‘Hopefully the Government will make the decision that will allow us to have some mixing but we will wait and see what that is.

‘And then I think, once we have got past the Christmas period, if there’s been a release and some socialisation we will all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again.’

An insider told the Daily Telegraph yesterday two proposals are being discussed for the festive period – extending the ‘rule of six’ over Christmas or permitting households to mix.

The proposals could see the UK celebrating a more normal festive period, before restrictions come back into force

The proposals could see the UK celebrating a more normal festive period, before restrictions come back into force

The proposals could see the UK celebrating a more normal festive period, before restrictions come back into force

The source said it was ‘more likely’ the Government would decide to allow multiple households to get together ‘for fear of people being left out.’

It added: ‘There’s very much a hope that there can be a UK approach because there’s a realisation that people have families in all four corners of the UK.

‘It’s important to give people hope as well after what has been a very difficult year for everyone.’

It is likely the total number of households, which has not been confirmed, would be at least three to include both sets of grandparents.  

Graphs wheeled out at Wednesday’s Government press conference showed hospital admissions for Covid-19 have dropped in the North West, North East and the Midlands, in another promising sign that the three-tiered approach was managing to curb the spread of the virus – especially Tier Three.

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