The public are being told to follow the guidance over Christmas, not the law. What is legally allowed should be considered a “maximum, not a target”. At the same time, Boris Johnson talks of people who “simply want to spend Christmas with their families”, giving the impression that bubbling up and travelling to see them is therefore an entirely reasonable course of action. He reckons it would be “frankly inhuman” to cancel Christmas and has made clear that the UK government will not do so – while accusing Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions of wanting to do just that. This jibe, combined with his chaotic messaging at the latest coronavirus press conference, could not have made it clearer that policy is being guided by the potential for bad headlines possibly featuring the word ‘Grinch’, rather than expert advice.
While the law in England will not change, with three households still allowed to form a bubble for five days, Labour’s Mark Drakeford took the step of toughening up not only the guidance but also what is legal in Wales, where only two households will be allowed to bubble over Christmas. (Wales will also enter a fresh lockdown from the 28th.) The four-nations approach fell apart yesterday, despite claims of unity from Johnson. This is deeply unfortunate, but the reasons are obvious. Daily Covid cases topped 25,000, deaths are rising, hospitalisation is increasing. The vaccine roll-out has just begun, meaning immunity is just weeks away for many elderly people, yet the legal situation decided three weeks ago will enable risky behaviour in the meantime. It is difficult not to conclude that Starmer has made the right call in describing this approach to Christmas as “the next big mistake”.
The key point made by the Labour leader at PMQs was this: the majority of Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas in the country are seeing coronavirus infections go up instead of down. This applies in three out of four Tier 2 areas and over half of Tier 3 areas, Starmer pointed out. How can anyone claim that the Prime Minister’s tier system is working? Although London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire entered Tier 3 early this week, the scheduled review still took place and Matt Hancock will reveal new tier allocations later this morning. Johnson stated three weeks ago that it “should be possible for areas to move down the tiering scale” at this review, but reports suggest this is unlikely. The bigger question, however, is whether anyone will acknowledge that the whole system needs a rethink.
Although a Brexit deal has not been struck, the House of Commons and Lords will rise for recess today, providing that outstanding legislation is passed as planned. Talks between the UK and EU are continuing, and both sides are making more optimistic noises about the chances of an agreement before December 31st. MPs and peers could be recalled at 48 hours’ notice to sit as early as Monday, but at the moment we simply do not know whether it will happen next week, between Christmas and the New Year, or not at all. Talk about a short Christmas… Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.