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Scientists Warn the UK Faces a Third-wave of COVID-19 in the New Year

Even for the most optimistic of us, 2020 has been challenging in many ways. Some have lost loved ones to the COVID-19 virus, and others have lost their jobs as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. We have all had to adjust to varying levels of restrictions on our lives, ranging from the hard lock-down which started in March, to a relaxation of the rules, then further lockdowns and alert levels. For Christmas, the Government has relaxed the rules to allow some semblance of family life to resume, but scientists are already warning that the UK faces a third-wave of the virus in the new year.

What Are The Christmas 2020 COVID-19 Rules?

If you were to tell a friend a year ago that for Christmas 2020, the Government will allow us to form a bubble with a small number of households, but only for five days, you would probably have received an odd look. But here we are. The new Christmas rules are intended to allow us to see our family and closest friends, but only for a very limited period. The rules are as follows:

  • The Christmas COVID-19 rules will only apply from 23/12/2020 to 27/12/2020
  • People will be free to travel anywhere in the UK regardless of any local tier restrictions in place
  • Up to three households can form a “Christmas bubble”
  • Bubbles may be in homes, places of worship, or outside in a garden or public space
  • Bubbles are not permitted to go to a pub or restaurant
  • Those who are self-isolating cannot join a bubble
  • People can meet others outside of their bubble, but only in line with the alert level tier in a place where they are staying
  • In Scotland, no more than eight people are allowed in a bubble (not including those under 12 years)
  • In Northern Ireland, the Christmas COVID-19 period lasts an extra day to 28/12/2020

The rules also allow for Santa’s grottos to open, but with strict social distancing and only outdoors. Door-step carol singing is permitted for groups of up to six people, and audiences can attend school nativity shows in tiers one and two.

Government Scientists Already Warning Of A New Year Third-Wave Of COVID-19

Understandably and rather predictably, some scientists are warning that relaxing the rules, even only for five days, especially when the current alert levels have not brought infection rates and deaths down to a tolerable level, will lead to unnecessary deaths and the NHS being overwhelmed. Andrew Hayward, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at UCL and a member of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told the BBC, “Effectively what this will be doing is throwing fuel on the Covid fire. I think it will definitely lead to increased transmission. It is likely to lead to the third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths…We are still in a country where we have got high levels of infection with Covid, particularly in young people. Bringing them together for hours, let alone days, with elderly relatives, I think, is a recipe for regret for many families. With the vaccine on the way, if we are not very careful over Christmas we are really in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on this one.”

Other scientists have echoed the view of Professor Hayward, including Prof Graham Medley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The WHO has also warned of a further wave of the pandemic in Europe, with one envoy, David Nabarro explaining that having failed to build up the necessary infrastructure during the summer months, “now we have the second wave. If they don’t build the necessary infrastructure, we’ll have a third wave early next year”. In his view, once the virus is brought under control, as it was after the first wave in Europe, then is not the time to relax. Nabarro praises how many Asian countries have dealt with the pandemic, stating “People are fully engaged, they take on behaviours that make it difficult for the virus. They keep their distance, wear masks, isolate when they’re sick, wash hands and surfaces. They protect the most endangered groups”.

Won’t The COVID-19 Vaccines Bring Levels Of Infection Down?

It is fully expected that vaccines will bring infections under control, but not fast enough to stop a third-wave in the new year. This is a view echoed by Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London. Professor Spector holds the view that it is unlikely that enough people will receive the vaccine as part of the planned mass vaccination programme in the UK before the virus proliferates in February or March 2021. He does hold some optimism, however, stating, “I still think we should expect a third wave in about February or March, and just hope that it is going to be a smaller one than the first and second”. As such, it won’t be until nearer the time when we will know the impact of the vaccination programme. It is, however, widely believed that the vaccination programme will take longer than many hope. Rather than life returning to normal by Easter, according to the BMJ, it is more realistic to expect that it will take around a year for the general public to be vaccinated and that the process will come with many difficult decisions around who should take priority.

Wrapping Up

The news of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine approval and the effectiveness of the Oxford vaccine suggests that 2021 will be the year of mass vaccinations around the world. It does appear that this will not be enough to stop another wave of cases in February or March. For this reason, while the Christmas COVID-19 rules do offer a chance to see friends and family, we all have a duty to do so responsibly.

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