LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that people should plan only for a “merry little Christmas” and exercise extreme caution but he refused to outlaw festive family gatherings as COVID-19 cases soared across swathes of Britain.
After imposing the most onerous restrictions in Britain’s peacetime history, Johnson is now keen to avoid becoming the first leader since Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century to cancel Christmas, even though the United Kingdom has the sixth worst official COVID-19 death toll in the world.
Hours after pubs and restaurants were forced to close again in London and some other areas to tackle a worsening outbreak, Johnson said plans to ease restrictions for five days from Dec. 23 would go ahead but urged people to be careful.
“It would not be right, we think, to criminalise people who have made plans and simply want to spend time with their loved ones,” Johnson told reporters at a Downing Street briefing, adding that a smaller Christmas would be a safer Christmas.
“Have yourselves a merry little Christmas,” Johnson said, using the title of the popular jingle sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical “Meet Me in St Louis”, and later recorded by stars such as Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Michael Buble.
Johnson’s plans to relax restrictions for five days so three households can mix have been criticised by two influential medical journals.
Medical views are mixed on whether or not Christmas should be cancelled. There is also growing concern among, for example, oncologists that many cancers are going undiagnosed due to the public health focus on COVID-19.
COVID-19 has battered the United Kingdom: The government’s most conservative death toll measure is 65,520, second only to Italy in Europe, while government borrowing is set to hit a peacetime high of 394 billion pounds ($531 billion) in 2020/21.
Official data showed another 25,161 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, up more than a third from a day earlier, and the highest level since mid-November, with another 612 deaths.
PARTY OR LOCKDOWN?
One cabinet minister suggested people should make up their own minds about what precautions to take, and said some may want to wait for Easter to gather with their family, given the risk to the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said it was not for government to tell people exactly how to behave.
“Easter can be the new Christmas for some people,” he said.
The leaders of Scotland and Wales, which set their own often-stricter rules, urged people to show restraint. Wales also toughened general restrictions further.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech has raised hopes that some semblance of normal life could return in 2021, though some families say they will meet up for Christmas regardless of what the government decrees.
A total of 137,897 people have been vaccinated in the past week, Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of vaccine deployment, said on Wednesday.
But as cases soared across the south of England, London went into the highest tier of lockdown from midnight. Large parts of northern England have spent months living with the toughest restrictions.
The highest tier means that pubs and restaurants are closed, but shops are not. Still, revellers partied into the night in central London’s Soho district ahead of the restrictions.
One woman waved purple burlesque feather fans while dozens cheered with beers and some sang karaoke in the streets for one last blast of revelry.
Few people wore masks or observed social-distancing guidelines. Police were booed when they told people to disperse.
Some pubs and bars – one displaying a sign “Save Soho to help save livelihoods” – put on cut-price drinks to shift stock before they closed. From Wednesday they are only allowed to serve takeaways.
Landlords and owners have complained that they risk going out of business without the Christmas trade.
($1 = 0.74 pounds)
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton, editing by Angus MacSwan, Gareth Jones and Alexandra Hudson)