The UK government has planned to cancel Christmas relaxation of restrictions, as most of the country enters Tier 4 as two new variants of COVID-19 emerge.
The Prime Minister has called for smaller and shorter Christmas celebrations in England. This came after the the emergence of two new variants of the disease and rapidly rising coronavirus cases and deaths. Areas of South East England, including London, and some in South West and East of England are set to go in or already gone into Tier 4 lockdown. To be told this news unexpectedly, just days before Christmas Day, this call has not been received well.
Slow To Take Action
The PM had criticised the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, for wanting to “cancel Christmas”, labelling him a grinch and inhumane at his Prime Minister’s Questions on 16th December. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a Downing Street COVID-19 Press Briefing that Saturday, following a Cabinet meeting. He announced parts of England were to be put into Tier 4 lockdown the next day.
This came after high levels of a new variant of COVID-19, which is more transmissible than the first by upto 70%, were detected in London and the South East. He said people in those areas would now no longer be able to celebrate Christmas with 2 other households, as had previously been planned. Boris Johnson urged those in other areas to keep their celebrations short and small. He explained that for them the mixing of 3 households was now only permissible on Christmas Day.
The scrapping of the five-day Christmas relaxation of restrictions plan has garnered the government more criticism on its handling of the pandemic. Not long after the announcement, Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, commented, whilst he supported the decision, it was “gross negligence” on the part of the Prime Minister for “failing to act sooner”. He said Boris Johnson had “waited until the 11th hour” before making the decision when “alarm bells” had been “ringing for weeks”. Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats hit back at the Prime Minister for being slow to take action.
Tories Defend Their Decision
Boris Johnson’s Cabinet tried to come to his defence, if anything to rationalise their late action. A day later, Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed the government did not want to “cancel Christmas”. But that it was “our duty” to act since the new variant of the disease was “out of control”, just weeks after declaring the coronavirus “ back under control”. Home Secretary, Priti Patel, speaking on Good Morning Britain, argued the government has been taking decisions based on advice from NERVTAG (the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group). Neither explained the reasons why restriction relaxation had been promised only for the government to cancel Christmas. Mr Johnson was none the wiser, answering to a question on why he has constantly been over-promising and under-delivering, with over-promising.
Not all the Conservative Party concurred with the restrictions. Tory MP Mark Harper said it was a “sad day” because the system of tiers “had failed in their goal of slowing transmission of COVID”. Meanwhile, the changes to the rules provoked fury from the public. With many regretting they had spent so much on gifts and arranged plans to see family and friends, only to be told they would have to change their plans at such short notice.
The Changes Weren’t Received Well
Their anger and resentment were not conveyed only in words. Hours after the briefing, an exodus formed at London’s St. Pancras station, as people fled the city. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was quick to criticise their “totally irresponsible” behaviour. Is the public really to blame when the government has expected so much from them and shown little concern for the predicament?
Wes Streeting, a Labour MP, said MP’s were told by Matt Hancock, in a call, no additional help would be given beyond the schemes that were only in operation. Businesses will and have been impacted by the sudden changes. Some businesses spoke of their worries, saying they had closed down their stores just before the briefing, finding out shortly after that they would not be able to open again.
Others may not be meeting targets they may have expected to meet over the Christmas period, as nonessential shops had largely been forced to close. Hospitality is another sector that has been hit hard. Amongst all of this was the blockade of freight that formed at Dover when air and ferry travel to and from many countries, including those in the EU had been suspended and the euro-tunnel had shut for 48 hours. This caused supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s to warn customers there may be shortage of supplies of some fresh fruits and vegetables.
Now, Tier 4 restrictions have extended to cover over half of England, with more to follow, implying the light at the end of the tunnel may yet be quite a distance away.