It is “too early to say” how people will be able to celebrate Christmas this year, with strict COVID-19 rules in place across large parts of the UK, a cabinet minister has told Sky News.
UK deaths hit their highest level for five months on Tuesday, when 367 new fatalities linked to coronavirus and nearly 23,000 more cases were recorded.
The government has responded to the second wave of infections with a three-tiered system of local lockdowns in England, with many people now banned from socialising with other households either indoors or outdoors.
Asked how people might be able to celebrate Christmas in less than two months’ time, Environment Secretary George Eustice told Sky News’ Kay Burley: “The prime minister has been very clear, as we all are, that we want people to celebrate Christmas in a way that is as close to normal as possible.
“But it is too early to be able to say exactly what the situation will be come Christmas, and exactly what different parts of the country will or will not be able to do.
“Obviously checking the spread of this virus is paramount, but alongside that we want people to live their lives as close to normal as possible, including at Christmas which is an incredibly important time for families.”
Downing Street is working on the assumption that the second wave of COVID-19 will be more deadly than the first, the Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday.
The newspaper said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – which has been advising the government throughout the pandemic – had projected the second wave will see deaths peaking at a lower level than in the spring, but remaining at that level for weeks or even months.
The Sun also reported SAGE analysis suggested the highest level of restrictions, Tier 3, may be needed across all of England by mid-December.
And SAGE member Professor Sir Mark Walport has said it is “not unrealistic” to think that 25,000 people could be in hospital with coronavirus by the end of November.
Mr Eustice said the “right approach” to responding to the increase in infections was the government’s three-tiered system for localised restrictions, which he said ministers are “going to stick to” despite pressure for a national “circuit breaker” lockdown.
However, he added that the government would “keep all options open” and ministers are “concerned” by the fresh spread of the virus.
“We’ve been monitoring the incidence of this disease and it’s why a number of weeks ago we strengthened those restrictions, why we’ve been introducing new restrictions in some of those northern towns and cities where there’s been an early spike,” he said.
“We know that mortality very sadly tends to follow those spikes in incidence by a number of weeks – it’s maybe that we started to see that yesterday.”
Mr Eustice said the incidence of the disease had begun to “dip back down” and there had been a “dampening” of the spread of the virus since the reintroduction of restrictions since the summer, but he admitted ministers are facing a “very difficult situation to control completely”.
He defended the government’s loosening of national restrictions over the summer, suggesting it was an easier time to manage the disease.
“We didn’t see a spike in the summer when we eased those lockdown restrictions, partly because it was in the summer and you had long days and warmer weather not conducive to spread of the virus,” the environment secretary said.
“We started to see an uptick in the virus in September, we monitored that very closely and started to reintroduce, therefore, restrictions later that month and we’ve been refining those ever since with targeted steps.
“This is a virus that spreads in winter months and it’s a difficult situation to manage but I think we’re taking the right approach.”
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