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15 December 2020

How Boris Johnson could have avoided a Christmas Covid-19 crisis

The government now faces a choice between a grave policy error or a U-turn that will disappoint millions.

By Ailbhe Rea

Millions of people in London and parts of the south-east of England will enter the highest tier of coronavirus restrictions from midnight tonight, as pressure grows on the government to reconsider its plans to ease restrictions for five days over Christmas.

Under the current plans, announced by the UK government in November but agreed with and signed off by the devolved administrations, households across the UK can meet up with two other households from 23 to 27 December, with coronavirus travel restrictions lifted over the period.

You have your pick of New Statesman pieces about why this approach is a bad idea, while acknowledging the political sensitivities of the issue. Stephen Bush has outlined the logistical nightmare and coronavirus risk of mandating people to travel in this narrow time window. I wrote last month about the ethics of going home for Christmas, and Patrick Scott has written on the stark numbers indicating the second national lockdown was lifted too early. And Stephen Bush has a new piece on the risk of spreading coronavirus from a young city to an old country when Londoners leave the city in the Christmas window. 

But the most important piece you’ll read today is a highly unusual joint intervention by the Health Service Journal and British Medical Journal calling on the government to reverse its Christmas plans and strengthen the tier system ahead of an anticipated third wave. “This joint editorial is only the second in the more than 100 year histories of the BMJ and HSJ,” it reads. “We are publishing it because we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives. If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be ‘protecting the NHS’.”

[See also: Ailbhe Rea on the ethics of going home for Christmas]

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We are familiar with the logic that has informed the government’s approach to Christmas: that if people were prepared to break the rules anyway (although there isn’t actually strong evidence that they would), it would be better to provide a framework for the period that people might actually stick to. There is also political pressure from the Conservative backbenches and parts of the media to “save Christmas” (and even Labour hasn’t yet wanted to be the Grinch that steals Christmas). People have had a very hard year and it is important for well-being, in a much more holistic sense, to allow people some joy and normality at this time. The problem, however, is that the bubbling system fails on its own terms and doesn’t provide a framework to meet with other households safely.

At this late stage, it is likely the government will have to alter its Christmas plans, or, at the very least, radically change its messaging around the easing of those restrictions, which we are already beginning to see from some ministers. But the government hasn’t laid the groundwork for this new approach. We could have had a sensible public conversation over the past few weeks about staggering travel across the month of December, reducing contacts, self-isolating for two weeks, meeting outdoors or for shorter periods of time, or forgoing in-person meetings altogether, to prepare people to make sacrifices over Christmas if they can, or to make sensible decisions if they can’t. This could have been coupled with an internal government decision to adopt a lighter touch to restrictions over the Christmas break.

Instead, the government now faces a choice between a policy that is widely acknowledged to be a grave error, or a U-turn that will disappoint millions and see a new Christmas policy implemented with little warning or conversation to prepare people for the expected sacrifice. 

[See also: Patrick Scott on the potentially disastrous results of allowing households to mix over Christmas]