Keir Starmer has demanded that the Prime Minister urgently convene an emergency COBRA meeting to review the current plans to relax the coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas period.
In a letter sent to Boris Johnson this afternoon, the Labour leader wrote that it has “become increasingly clear over recent days that the tier system you introduced two weeks ago has failed to control transmission of Covid-19”.
Starmer added: “I understand that people want to spend time with their families after this awful year, but the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse since the decision about Christmas was taken.
“It serves no-one for politicians to ignore this fact. It is my view that you should now convene COBRA in the next 24 hours to review whether the current relaxation is appropriate given the rising number of cases.”
The Labour leader also told the Prime Minister that he would have the Labour Party’s full support “if you conclude with government scientists that we need to take tougher action to keep people safe over Christmas”.
The letter from Starmer follows growing disquiet over government plans to allow increased household mixing over the Christmas period. Between December 23rd and 27th, people will be allowed to form a bubble of three households.
The Health Service Journal and British Medical Journal have today warned that people might see the easing “as permission to drop their guard” and described the bubbling arrangements as a “rash decision” that will “cost many lives”.
A further 20,263 coronavirus cases and a 232 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded in the UK on Monday, according to government figures. But Downing Street has insisted it has “no plans to review the Christmas guidelines”.
London mayor Sadiq Khan urged Downing Street this morning to “look at the rules” for the festive period. He told the government: “I’m not sure you got it right, in fact I’m sure you haven’t got it right, in relaxations over Christmas.”
He added during his interview with Sky News: “If they don’t change the rules, my message to your viewers is we’re under no obligation to do all that’s allowed. There’s no reason why you have to kiss or hug an older relation.”
Starmer had also voiced concerns over the Christmas rules earlier this week. On Monday, he said: “I’m increasingly worried about the lifting of restrictions over Christmas. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy for the government, because it isn’t.
“You could understand the human desire for families to get together, particularly after a year like this. But I have to say, looking at the numbers, I am increasingly concerned about the lifting of restrictions.
“To keep areas in tier three, and put London into tier three, and then at the same time release restrictions over the Christmas period, I think a lot of people will be saying, ‘hang on, I’m not sure this quite works’.
“At the moment what I’d say to people is, we all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to keep the infection down. That means I think for most of us, staying at home if we possibly can for Christmas.”
Jonathan Ashworth emphasised on Monday the need to fix testing and tracing after Matt Hancock announced that a “new variant” of coronavirus has been identified in the UK and London would need to urgently enter Tier 3.
The Health Secretary had used a parliamentary statement to the Commons to warn that a new variant is “growing faster than the existing variants” and “may be associated with faster spread in the South East of England”.
Hancock told MPs that the capital, along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, would be entering Tier 3 from Wednesday. Review of the Covid measures and cases in the region will take place on December 23rd and weekly thereafter.
Below is the full text of the letter sent to the Prime Minister today.
Dear Prime Minister,
Urgent review of the Covid Christmas restrictions
It has become increasingly clear over recent days that the tier system you introduced two weeks ago has failed to control transmission of Covid-19. Sadly, it does now appear that the government has – once again – lost control of infections, putting our economy and our NHS at grave risk in the new year.
This will be a source of great anxiety for people across the country, who have made so many sacrifices to keep families, loved ones and communities safe. The fantastic work of scientists and others in developing a vaccine has been a tremendous achievement for our country and allowed us to all feel hopeful again. But we have been brought back down to earth with a thud as the grim possibility of an increasingly bleak winter comes into view.
I welcomed the fact that the government had sought a four-nation approach on the arrangements over the Christmas period. I understand that people want to spend time with their families after this awful year, but the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse since the decision about Christmas was taken. It serves no-one for politicians to ignore this fact.
It is my view that you should now convene COBRA in the next 24 hours to review whether the current relaxation is appropriate given the rising number of cases. If you conclude with government scientists that we need to take tougher action to keep people safe over Christmas, then you will have my support.
Any further tightening of restrictions will obviously be deeply disappointing to many across the country. Many will have already started planning for Christmas and would have held on to the prospect of a happy day with family and loved ones to get us through these tough months. But the public do not want false reassurance, warm words or ducked challenges from their Prime Minister. They want leadership.
This is a critical moment for our country. The tiered system has not kept the virus under control and has left us with precious little headroom. Put simply, if you take the wrong decision now, the ramifications for our NHS and our economy in the new year could be severe.
Our country has already seen one of the worst excess death rates in Europe and the worst recession of any major economy. This was not inevitable, but a failure to take the tough decisions at the right time. The government was too slow at the start of the pandemic and in September, when it was clear we needed a circuit break over half-term, you chose to ignore the scientific advice and delayed the inevitable until November.
I am urging you to not repeat that same mistake now. Your priority should be a safe Christmas, which allows a healthy and prosperous new year.
Leader of the Labour Party