Hopes for a lockdown-free Christmas were given a major boost today as the daily number of coronavirus infections and deaths fell by 15 and 11 per cent in a week and Boris Johnson said his priority was to reunite families over the festive period.
Britain recorded 19,609 new Covid-19 cases today, down from 2.2 per cent on the 20,051 announced yesterday and 14.6 per cent lower than the 22,950 figure last Wednesday. There were also 529 fatalities in the last 24 hours, which is 11.5 per cent less than the 598 on Tuesday and 11.1 per cent smaller than the 595 a week ago.
It is hoped the week-on-week drop signals the national lockdown is starting to take effect, after getting off to a rocky start last week when infections continued to climb despite the tough curbs. Last week’s spike is thought to have been caused by Brits rushing to pubs and restaurants for a pre-lockdown blowout.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister said today it was 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.
Ministers are said to be thrashing out plans to free the country from lockdown shackles for five days between December 24 to 28 and allow family ‘bubbles’ of up to four households to gather indoors for festive celebrations.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference today, 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.
It could mean spending 25 extra days in some form of lockdown and scrapping New Year celebrations if Boris’ Christmas plans are given the go-ahead.
However, one Tory MP warned today 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.’
Referring to Number 10’s new guidance to keep windows open during winter to flush out lingering Covid, the MP said: ‘If the weather is cold people keep the windows shut. Granny always gets chilly.’
In other coronavirus developments:
- Pfizer today declared its Covid-19 vaccine was 95 per cent effective, safe and could even be approved by the end of the week, barely three days after Moderna said its vaccine was 94.5 per cent effective;
- It made the claim after confirming it could submit the required two months’ worth of safety data to regulators because its stage three trials had been running for long enough;
- Britain has ordered 40million doses of Pfizer’s jab, the first batch of which are expected to arrive this year, and 5million doses of Moderna’s jab to arrive before spring next year;
- Testing Tsar Baroness Dido Harding is ordered to self-isolate by her own contact tracing app after going to Number 10 a day after Boris’s mask-free meeting with infected MP;
- One in eight Covid-19 cases were recorded in the wrong location due to blunder with Test & Trace data;
- Britain recorded 1.7 per cent fewer coronavirus cases yesterday with 20,051 infections, but the death toll rose by 12.4 per cent in a week to 598;
- Boris Johnson refused to apologise for £18billion PPE contracts being awarded to those in contact with Government ministers, and insisted they moved ‘heaven and earth’ to snap up vital supplies.
Speaking at the briefing today, 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 been examining the potential relaxation of measures over Christmas. She told today’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.’
Graphs wheeled out at today’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.
Dr Hopkins signalled her support for the localised approach at the conference, saying the largest falls in infections were being recorded in areas previously under these restrictions which is ‘good news that some parts of the country have already flattened off’.
Tier Three is considered the best way to drive down infections without sacrificing all sections of the economy because it allows restaurants, shops and, in some cases, gyms to remain open. This means it is far less restrictive than a full national lockdown.
Government data revealed the daily number of patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 had peaked in three regions of England where Tier Three had come into force. The measure is less strict than a crude national lockdown, which sees restaurants and, in some cases, gyms also forced to close.
In the North West – which had been at the centre of England’s outbreak – hospitalisations peaked on October 26, when the average number of admissions over the previous seven days peaked at 308.4 per day. This has since fell by 13 percent to 267.1 per day in the seven-day spell to November 12, the latest date for which data is available.
In the Midlands – where swathes were placed under Tier Three restrictions – hospitalisations peaked on November 11, when their seven-day average reached 382 admissions per day. It had fallen to 377.4 the following day.
Although the average hasn’t been calculated for the other days, each has lower admissions than the day before suggesting the figure will continue to drop.
And in the North East and Yorkshire the highest number of hospitalisations was recorded on November 10, when 464 people were admitted with Covid-19. This had dropped to 376 on November 15.
Dame Angela said she was confident in the measure which had successfully reigned in coronavirus transmission.
She told the Government briefing: ‘When I look at the North West and the North East, when I look at what’s happened with the ONS surveys there, I see interventions that have worked, I see epidemics that are flattening. There is some good news there.’
Dr Hopkins also signalled her support for the tiered-system – especially Tier Three – as a way to put the lid on spiralling infections.
Explaining the Government graphs, she said: ‘What you see is, even before national restrictions were brought in, in the parts of the country where the amount of infections was already very high the progress of the epidemic had already flattened off – that’s the North West and Yorkshire and Humber.
‘Those also happen to include the parts of the country that were under Tier Three restrictions, so that’s good news that some parts of the country have already flattened off.’
Despite throwing their support behind Tier 3, there are rumblings of a revamped four-tier system when England finally comes out of its national shutdown on December 2, which could see pubs forced to stay shut and a new 9pm alcohol curfew in Covid hotspots.
Ministers and experts reportedly want to review the direction of Covid-19 death figures and infection numbers across the UK before green-lighting any proposals for families to meet over Christmas.
Under the proposals, reported in the Sun, households would be allowed to mix for up to five days, starting on Christmas Eve. The five day period has reportedly been chosen because Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday this year.
It will mean many, but not all workers, will then have Christmas Day and Boxing Day off, followed by Sunday, December 27, and a planned Bank Holiday on Monday, December 28.
Ministers reportedly want to make the Christmas rules standard across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all of which have recently had varying levels of Covid restrictions in place.
The five day period has reportedly been chosen because Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday this year. It will mean many, but not all workers, will then have Christmas Day and Boxing Day off, followed by Sunday, December 27, and a planned Bank Holiday on Monday, December 28
Millions of Britons have today been given a major boost that their number one Christmas wish – to be with their family over the festive period – could be granted. Pictured: Pedestrians in Oxford Circus, London, yesterday
According to the Times, the period for easing of restrictions could be much shorter – between two or three days.
The paper also reports that the number of households able to mix in ‘bubbles’ could be limited to just two or three households.
Scientific advisers have reportedly urged the Government against easing rules too much, with some warning case numbers could double or quadruple over the Christmas period.
Talks between the four nations are set to take place at a later date, with ministers in the devolved nations said to be keen to wait for more data before making a decision.
At her coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh today, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: ‘We are all desperate for some normality around Christmas and I absolutely include myself in that.
‘The Scottish Government right now is working very closely and well with the other UK nations to try to agree a way for that to happen – we want to have the same position across the UK given family patterns that exist.
‘But we know that people coming together when a virus is circulating will increase the risks of it spreading.’
The First Minister again said that meeting at Christmas requires the prevalence of the virus to reduce in the coming weeks.
At the Downing Street press conference today, Dr Hopkins also said that every lower tier local authority will have local contact tracing in place by the end of November.
‘NHS Test and Trace has increased its testing capacity, that has been a very important intervention and that has allowed us to try and work on decreasing turnaround times for those people who get tested,’ she told the Downing Street data briefing on Covid-19.
‘We’re also working very hard with local authorities to enhance the contact tracing system and by the end of this month, almost every lower tier local authority will have local contact tracing in place so that’s really allowed us to step up.
‘That’s an amazing achievement – in the summer where we were having 1,000 cases a day we were contacting on average 2,000 to 3,000 people per day.
‘Right now, with almost 30,000 cases a day across the UK, we are managing to contact over 100,000 people per day.’
England’s deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said she did not expect for hospital admissions to halve every three weeks as they did during the first lockdown in March.
She told the Downing Street data briefing: ‘During the March lockdown – the number of hospitalisations which was really all we could keep track of at that time – was halving every three weeks.
‘I don’t think we’re going to achieve that – I do not think we will halve before the second of December.’
It comes amid a split between cabinet members over plans for a ‘strengthened’ Covid tier system, which could see indoor socialising banned across much of the country for months.
Ministers are preparing for a bitter fight over the details of a beefed-up system of ‘regional’ restrictions which are due to be published next week.
A Whitehall source said Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove were attempting to ‘rein in everything’ and allow only a modest loosening of restrictions when the current lockdown rules expire on December 2.
However, other senior ministers, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Business Secretary Alok Sharma, Trade Secretary Liz Truss, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Home Secretary Priti Patel, are said to be gearing up to push for a wider reopening to allow businesses to salvage part of their Christmas trade.
The new restrictions are expected to last for months, with only the short break over Christmas to allow more contact with family and friends.
Downing Street yesterday insisted that Boris Johnson, who is in self-isolating having been in contact with a fellow Tory MP who tested positive for Covid, remains determined to end the current restrictions on December 2.
The proposals could see the UK celebrating a more normal festive period, before restrictions come back into force
Downing Street said yesterday Boris Johnson wanted to ‘ensure that people can spend time with close family over Christmas’
A Whitehall source said Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured left) and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove were attempting to ‘rein in everything’ and allow only a modest loosening of restrictions after December 2. But other senior ministers, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak (pictured right), are said to be gearing up to push for a wider reopening
Though households could be banned from mixing when the lockdown ends in a bid to ‘save Christmas’, according to the Daily Telegraph.
The paper says the ban could last until ‘close to Christmas’ to allow for a festive ‘bubble’ system.
However no decisions have been taken about exactly what structure of tiered restrictions will replace it.
Plans for an ‘end of lockdown package’, including more details on the country’s vaccination programme, is expected to be announced next week.
On Monday, Public Health England director Susan Hopkins, warned that the tier system would have to be ‘strengthened’ to avoid a resurgence in the virus when the lockdown ends.
She said Tier One – the only level that allowed for indoor socialising – had had ‘very little effect’.
Documents released last week from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, which reports to the Scientific Advisory Committee for Emergencies (Sage) said that although there was a ‘clear effect’ on infection rates from strict Tier Three interventions, there was ‘much less from Tiers One and Two’.
The SPI-M group believes infections will rise at the same rate as before if the same three-tier system is brought back in on December 2.
But many ministers fear the economy would face another heavy blow if huge numbers of businesses are forced to remain closed in the run up to Christmas.
Tory MPs are also gearing up for a fight over the issue, with one warning that up to 100 could rebel next week if the new restrictions are drawn too tightly.
A Whitehall source acknowledged that the Government would face ‘political difficulties’ if the hospitality sector is unable to reopen in the run-up to Christmas.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said yesterday that he hoped to see most hospitality firms allowed to reopen.
But he acknowledged that restrictions were likely to be only ‘somewhat easier’ after the current lockdown ends.
In a round of broadcast interviews, Mr Jenrick said any extension of the lockdown would require a vote of Parliament.
‘It is our hope and expectation that that won’t be the case and that people in England will be able to move back into the tiered system,’ he said.
Sir John Bell, a member of the Government’s vaccines taskforce, said the Government would not be able to ‘take our foot off the brake completely’ when the lockdown ends.
But he said developments in mass testing could help ease restrictions. ‘I am optimistic that we won’t have to go into the Christmas period in a lockdown,’ he said.
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the original lockdown in March, said reopening pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas would be likely to lead to rising infection levels.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: ‘The big question is can we reopen… pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas and still avoid infection levels increasing?
‘I suspect we can’t, but the decision may be made to do so anyhow on the basis that any increase will be slow and may be able to be counteracted later.’
The British Medical Association last night called for the ‘rule of six’, which allowed mixing of up to six households, to be replaced with a ‘two households’ rule.
It comes as Britain last night recorded 1.7 per cent fewer coronavirus cases compared to last week in yet another indication the UK’s second wave is slowing.
The Government announced 20,051 new lab-confirmed Covid cases in the UK today, down from the 20,412 infections confirmed last Tuesday.
The figure is also a fall from the 21,363 cases confirmed on Monday, with the total number of infections in the UK now at 1,410,732 since the start of the pandemic.
Professor Neil Ferguson (pictured), whose modelling led to the original lockdown in March, said reopening pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas would likely re-kindle a rise in infection levels
The Department of Health announced a further 598 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday – up 12.4 per cent from the same point last week, when 532 deaths were recorded.
Yesterday’s death toll is the highest recorded in Britain since May 12, when 614 deaths were confirmed. The latest death figure brings the UK total to 52,745.
However, separate data from the UK’s statistic agencies suggest there have been more than 68,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
These include deaths where the virus has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days.
Meanwhile, figures released by the Office for National Statistics yesterday showed the number of people dying with Covid-19 rose by 40 per cent in the first week of November – when the virus was to blame for one in every six deaths in England and Wales.
It was not explained last night why deaths have risen sharply, though it could be a delayed spike following a rise in Covid cases last week.
The figures comes as Nicola Sturgeon last night announced that parts of Scotland that are home to millions of people will be moved into its toughest coronavirus level at the end of the week as she warned infection rates remain ‘stubbornly high’.
The First Minister said 11 council areas, which include the city of Glasgow, will be subject to Level Four restrictions from 6pm on Friday. The areas have a combined population of approximately 2.3million people.
People living in Level Four areas are banned from meeting with other households indoors while all non-essential shops must close.
In an announcement to the Scottish Parliament, Ms Sturgeon told people in those areas is that they ‘should not be going out and about’ while the measures are place for the three weeks – until December 11.
The SNP leader also announced she is making it illegal for people to travel into or out of Level Three and Level Four areas ‘except for certain essential purposes’.
There is already guidance in place urging people not to make such journeys, but Ms Sturgeon said the advice will become law from Friday.
It means rule-breakers face the prospect of enforcement action from the police.
Nicola Sturgeon today announced 11 local authority areas are being moved into the toughest coronavirus level from Friday
The council areas in Scotland moving to Level Four from Friday are the City of Glasgow, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian.
Ms Sturgeon said there was ‘grounds for continued and significant concern’ in all of the areas being moved into Level Four.
As well as the 11 areas being elevated to the top tier, two areas are being moved from Level Three to Level Two while 19 will experience no change.