'It's like a car crash playing out in slow motion': Experts urge 'rethink Christmas' as COVID hospital admissions set to surpass first wave

Alexandra Thompson
·5 min read
Girl wearing face mask on a Parisian street or at Christmas market looking at shop windows decorated for Christmas. Seasonal holidays during pandemic and coronavirus outbreak
After a challenging year, UK officials will relax coronavirus restrictions over Christmas. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

A team of experts is calling for the public to urgently “rethink Christmas”.

Despite rising coronavirus cases, three households are permitted to mix between 23 and 27 December.

Medical experts have repeatedly warned against a relaxation of restrictions, with editors of The BMJ and Health Service Journal calling the “rash” decision a “blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.

Since the government announced its “Christmas amnesty”, coronavirus cases have crept up, with 35,383 confirmed incidences on 17 December.

After England’s second lockdown led to a brief plateau in deaths, fatalities are also beginning to rise, with 532 people dying within 28 days of a positive test at last count.

Read more: How to build resilience in children amid a coronavirus Christmas

While four out of five cases are thought to be mild, the coronavirus can trigger a disease called COVID-19.

Based on the direction the data is going, hospital admissions are set to surpass the first wave’s within the next few weeks, prompting a member of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to describe the relaxation as “a car crash playing out in slow motion”.

Coronavirus test
Coronavirus cases are on the rise in almost all regions of England. (Stock, Getty Images)

‘We have a recipe for a third peak’

“Cases and hospital admissions are rising almost everywhere and deaths are beginning to rise as well,” said Dr Kit Yates, from the University of Bath and a member of Independent Sage.

“Add to that the impact of Christmas mixing and we have a recipe for a third peak which is significantly higher than the second.

“It's like a car crash playing out in slow motion.

“We can see what's coming, but there's very little that can now be done about it.”

Independent Sage was set up as an alternative to the government’s official advisory group.

Read more: Keep Santa after ‘the Grinch that was 2020’

The 35,383 confirmed cases on 17 December was an increase from 25,161 the day before – the largest rise over a 24-hour period since the outbreak was identified.

Experts have previously pointed out, however, a lack of testing during the UK’s first wave meant up to 200,000 cases likely arose every day in March, but went unreported.

The 35,383 figure also includes 11,000 positive cases from Wales that were previously unrecorded due to maintenance work at Public Health Wales.

“Even with normal reporting, this probably would have been the second highest day,” said Dr Yates.

Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?

Based on hospital data, COVID-related admissions are set to surpass the 113,000 cases that took place between March and mid-August – considered the first wave – in the next few weeks, according to Dr Yates.

The average NHS bed occupancy in England reached almost 89% for the week ending 13 December.

Fifty-nine out of 126 NHS trusts are also reporting a bed occupancy of more 90%, above the recommended safe level.

“To some extent hospitalisations are ‘locked in’ because cases have been rising across the country,” said Dr Yates.

Winter is always a more challenging time for the NHS as it contends with seasonal infections like flu and norovirus.

Read more: Christmas health hazards revealed by scientists

“[Official] Sage warned last week infections could easily double [with the Christmas relaxation],” said Dr Yates.

“Researchers in Bristol have suggested if all households formed a bubble with two other households, which they’re allowed to under the law, that would potentially cause R [the reproduction number] to skyrocket to 2.8 to 3.5.”

R is the number of people a patient statistically passes the virus on to. When R is higher than one, an outbreak grows. The latest R number is estimated at 0.9 to 1.

“COVID spreads most easily in stuffy rooms where people spend long periods of time, which sounds like the Christmases we had in my family in the past,” said Dr Yates.

This warning comes after other experts stressed a normal Christmas is “not a good idea”, with “a few days of fun” having “dire consequences”.

UK nations are already preparing for the aftermath of the Christmas relaxation.

Northern Ireland will have a six-week lockdown from 26 December, while Welsh residents will have to stay home from 28 December; a measure that will be reviewed every three weeks, but has no end date.

In Scotland, officials have warned tougher restrictions – including a potential lockdown – after the festive period cannot be ruled out.

Government minister Nick Gibb has called England’s tier system “very effective”, but added further regulations may also come in.

Independent Sage argues tier 2 restrictions are “not enough to stop spread” in most English regions, with the majority of the tier 3 areas also seeing a recent week-on-week rise in cases.

Tier 2 regulations prohibit indoor mixing of different households. Groups of no more than six can meet up outside. Pubs and restaurants have to close at 11pm, with alcohol only being served with a “substantial meal”.

In tier 3, different households cannot meet indoors or outdoors at “hospitality venues or private gardens”. The rule of six applies in public outside areas, like parks.

How to stay safe if socialising this Christmas

Independent Sage has stressed “can isn’t shouldn’t”, urging people not to mix with as many households as the government has allowed.

“Better still”, postpone the festivities until later in the year, said member Professor Susan Michie.

For those who do meet up, think “outdoors not indoors”.

If inside, keep the air circulating via open windows and doors.

People should ideally self-isolate for 10 days before any get-together and maintain social distancing throughout.

Hand sanitiser points should also be set up by the front door, with surfaces being cleaned thoroughly and regularly.

Dr Michie – from Imperial College London – concluded it is not too late to rethink your Christmas plans, adding assume “someone in your midst is infected” when trying to safe.

Watch: What is long COVID?