Will coronavirus be the Grinch that stole Christmas? It’s one of the many questions on everyone’s lips, following the continued Covid-19 restrictions.
Scientists have reportedly told ministers all of England will need to be under severe tier 3 Covid restrictions by mid-December, according to The Sun.
The government’s Sage advisory body has warned that rates of the virus will soar past the levels seen in areas that are already in the “very high” category.
The news comes after the UK’s daily coronavirus death toll topped 350 for the first time since May. The deaths of 367 people who tested positive for Covid-19 and died within 28 days were recorded on Tuesday October 27, bringing the UK’s total death toll to 45,365.
The last time daily deaths exceeded 350 was on May 27, when 422 people with Covid-19 were reported to have died.
There have been calls for Boris Johnson to take “drastic” action and impose stricter coronavirus restrictions after the death toll peaked.
It comes as a new projection by the government’s own scientists shows the second wave of coronavirus will be more deadly than the first. The projection – shared by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and reported in The Telegraph – suggests the death toll could remain high throughout the winter, peaking at a lower level than in spring but then remaining level for weeks – or even months.
The paper said the internal analysis has led to “intense” lobbying from experts including chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Valance for the prime minister to take more “drastic” action.
“It’s going to be worse this time, more deaths,” one source told the paper. “That is the projection that has been put in front of the prime minister, and he is now being put under a lot of pressure to lockdown again.”
In September, Boris Johnson announced restrictions, which included the 10pm curfew across England, weddings of just 15 people, working from home if you can and mandatory face masks in more settings.
The prime minister said at the time: “Unless we palpably make progress then we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months.”
His statement marked a different tone to the previous Downing Street briefing, where he said: “I’m still hopeful, as I’ve said before, that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas.”
Government insiders previously told HuffPost UK certain restrictions could be in place until spring 2021. “Christmas will not be the same – of that I am absolutely sure,” says Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“To what extent Christmas may be cancelled depends on us right now.”
“The re-opening of schools and the shedding and seeding of the virus more widely in the population leading up to Christmas will make ongoing, leap-frogging, Covid-19 outbreaks more likely,” says Dr Julian Tang, consultant virologist and honorary associate professor, at the University of Leicester.
Christmas Day (and the lazy period afterwards) doesn’t pose a big problem in itself, he adds. It’s the run-up that’s the issue.
“In the UK – unlike in Asia where everything is open and people go out a lot – Christmas is mostly a home and family affair – almost like a voluntary, self-imposed lockdown for a few days,” he says. “However, the main risk is likely the pre-Christmas shopping days and the festive spirit that this creates.”
Dr Tang’s concern is we’ll begin to relax social distancing behaviours if we’re going to crowded shopping malls and sipping mulled wine in packed pubs.
“Shopping online for Christmas is safer but much less atmospheric and festive, so may not be so popular,” he says.
Although some universities are conducting lectures online until 2021, Prof. Bloomfield is concerned about the impact of many students returning home from campus.
“They’ll have Christmas parties and then they’ll come home and spread out across the country and spread the virus elsewhere,” she says. “It just doesn’t really bear thinking about.”
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine and expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, is a little more optimistic.
Christmas is a religious festival and will never be formally “cancelled”, points out Prof. Hunter, but we may need to celebrate it in more intimate ways this year. Judging by the current trajectory, the next peak infection rate could be December to January, he adds.
“The big office work parties and things like that almost certainly won’t be happening in my view, which some people might breath a sigh of relief at,” he says.
Even if church ceremonies do go ahead as usual at Christmas, “the big issue about churches is the age distribution,” says Prof. Hunter.
“Most people who attend tend to be quite old, on average. It’s quite plausible that the government may recommend shielding again at some point, probably sooner rather than later, I would guess,” he adds. “Even if church services can go ahead, it may be the case that three quarters of the congregation can’t turn up because they’re supposed to be shielding.”
Schools still might be open, adds Prof. Hunter, “but the typical school nativity play probably won’t happen”.
“Schools won’t be getting loads of parents into a hall to watch their children pretend to be shepherds,” he says.
Of course, as different restrictions are already in place across the tiers, multi-household meals are unlikely to be happening. Even if restrictions ease, granny might need to stay home. “Covid-19 can be more severe in older populations,” says Dr Tang. “So, sadly, multi-generational family gatherings may be potentially less safe and may need to be avoided.”
A vaccine may be available by Christmas, says Prof. Bloomfield, adding a glimmer of hope. But the chances of it being rolled out nationally by December are slim.
“It will take many, many months to produce enough vaccine to produce what we call ‘heard immunity’,” she says. “There might be enough for those at highest risks – healthcare workers and people in extremely vulnerable groups – but to produce population herd immunity by Christmas, from what I’ve heard, is not a possibility.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.