LONDON (AP) — Britain’s easing of restrictions for family gatherings over Christmas looks like it’s still on despite a sharp spike in new coronavirus infections in the last few weeks that’s raised fears of a new wave of infections and deaths in the new year.
Britain’s communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said further discussions will take place on Wednesday between leaders from the four nations of the U.K. about the planned relaxation. However, he gave no indication that a change would be announced, beyond urging people to think harder about their holiday plans.
“It could be counterproductive to produce overly restrictive rules rather than providing very clear and sober guidance and ask people to think carefully and come to their informed judgment,” he told BBC radio.
Criticism of the planned five-day easing of restrictions, which would allow three households to form a holiday bubble, ratcheted higher with concerns emerging from scientists and from across the political spectrum.
Michael Gove, a senior member of Britain’s Conservative government, which sets public health policy for England, met with leaders from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the U.K.’s Christmas plans, and the group will meet again later Wednesday.
Britain’s Conservative government, along with the devolved administrations, agreed last month to allow a maximum of three households to mix between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27, regardless of what local restrictions are in place.
But with new infections rising in many places, concerns are growing that relaxation will see a further escalation in infections and deaths and put too much pressure on the already-stressed National Health Service.
On Wednesday, London and nearby areas entered the highest level of local restrictions in England — Tier 3 — in which pubs and restaurants had to close again apart from takeout, and further curbs were placed on different households meeting up.
Jenrick said the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine developed by America’s Pfizer and the German company BioNTech had changed the narrative since the Christmas bubble decision was made. The U.K. became the first country in the world to use the vaccine, which has a very high efficacy rate of around 95%.
“It’s given hope that early in the new year, if not before, those people can be vaccinated. So why not wait a few weeks or months to get family together when you can do so safely in 2021?” he said.
Britain’s newly created vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said Wednesday that 137,897 people had received a vaccination shot since inoculations began on Dec. 8. All those people must return in three weeks for a follow-up shot.
“A really good start to the vaccination program,” he said in a tweet.
The government, which is providing the vaccine free of charge, is first targeting nursing home workers and elderly people over 80.