It's not a target: UK rows back on Christmas easing advice

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A man wears a face mask as she skates past a closed pub in Soho, in London, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. London and some of its surrounding areas will be placed under Britain's highest level of coronavirus restrictions beginning at 00:01 local time on today as infections rise rapidly in the capital. Under Tier 3 restrictions, the toughest level in England's three-tier system, people can't socialize indoors, and bars, pubs and restaurants must close except for takeout.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON – No need to take it to the max.

That's the new Christmas message that leaders of the U.K.'s four nations were spreading Wednesday, after toughening up their advice over what people should do during the holiday period.

Last month, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland agreed to permit a maximum of three households to mix between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27, regardless of what local restrictions are in place.

But following a sharp spike in new infections — another 25,161 were recorded Wednesday, the highest since Nov. 14 — families are being urged to consider the rules as the outer limits of what they can do.

“Have yourselves a merry little Christmas and, I’m afraid, this year I do mean little,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a press briefing. “I want to stress these are maximums, not targets.”

His comments echoed those of other leaders elsewhere, though Wales said it will legislate to limit bubbles to two households.

Johnson said it would be “inhuman” to ban Christmas but that in light of the “worrying” rises in new infections in some parts of the country, people should think hard about what to do. He said anyone planning to meet others during the easing should start limiting contacts from this Friday, for example.

Professor Chris Whitty, the government's chief medical officer, said the advice was akin to driving at the speed limit in icy conditions.

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should," he said.

Concerns over the planned easing have ratcheted higher in recent days. With new infections rising in many places, many fear that the relaxation will only lead to more deaths. On Wednesday, the U.K. recorded another 612 COVID-related fatalities, taking the total to 65,520 — Europe's second-highest behind Italy.

The confusion surrounding the scheduled easing has been exacerbated by the fact that many parts of the country have seen restrictions tightened this week. 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 more curbs were placed on different households meeting up.

Johnson also said the elderly and the most vulnerable should be vaccinated by the early part of 2021. The U.K. is rolling out the vaccine developed by America’s Pfizer and the German company BioNTech after becoming on Dec. 8 the first country in the world to authorize it.

Other vaccines, from American biotechnology firm Moderna and one developed by the University of Oxford and British pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, are currently being assessed by British regulators.

Britain’s new vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said Wednesday that 137,897 people had received a shot since inoculations began. They must all return in three weeks for a follow-up shot.

The government, which is providing the vaccine free of charge mainly at hospitals so far, is first targeting nursing home workers and people over 80. Nursing home residents are now being vaccinated as well after issues relating to the transportation of the vaccine, which needs to be kept at super-cold temperatures, were addressed.

Despite the update, questions remain over how many people can be inoculated on any given day, and what proportion of people being offered the vaccine are agreeing to get a shot.

To date, 800,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are known to be in the U.K. and 5 million more are expected to arrive this year, half the original expectation.

“With the vaccine, and all the other measures we are taking, we do know that things will be better in this country by Easter,” Johnson said. “And, I’m sure that next year Christmas will be as normal as usual for every family in the country.”


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