Brits are hoping that Christmas this year will be very different to the last.
Memories of December 2020 in lockdown still linger, not helped by the ever-present threat of another Christmas lockdown.
In this report we will unpack the current threat of a repeat of last year as Europe’s Covid cases surge.
READ MORE: How London’s Covid cases and deaths compare to this time last year during the second UK lockdown
More than 80 per cent of people over the age of 12 in the UK have now been fully vaccinated against coronavirus, and more than 15.6 million of the most vulnerable people have received a booster shot.
But tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases are still being reported daily, and there are steep rises in infection rates being seen across the Channel in much of central Europe.
There is also the looming concern that the rates of hospitalisations will rise in the coming weeks, which could tip the NHS into a period of intense pressure.
Several experts have warned that the UK could face restrictions being reimposed in the future unless action is taken now.
However, Boris Johnson’s contingency plans for winter, that he refers to as ‘Plan B’, remain firmly in their box.
The UK is in a comparably better position than its European neighbours, with a fast-moving booster jab campaign.
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Ministers have also argued that much lower levels of hospitalisations and deaths in the UK during this third wave of infections compared to this time last year means there is no need for another lockdown.
With just one month to go until Christmas, we look at where we are with the latest data, what has happened to the government’s ‘Plan B’ and whether another winter lockdown is likely.
What’s happening with case rates, hospitalisations and deaths?
The general picture shows that although case rates in the UK are relatively high, hospitalisations and deaths are being seen in much lower numbers than they were in earlier waves.
The latest data from the government’s coronavirus dashboard suggests that around three-quarters of local authority areas in the UK are seeing a week-on-week rise in case numbers.
Over the last three months, the UK has been recording an average of 37,634 new cases of coronavirus each day.
However, Professor John Edmunds warned that cases “could really take off” as winter approaches.
“We’re going to have high levels of infection for many months,” the epidemiologist predicted.
“I think the NHS will unfortunately be under significant strain. It may not get to breaking point, where we were close to before, but significant strain for a very long period of time is certainly on the cards.”
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests one in 65 people in private households in England are infected with coronavirus.
While deaths remain much lower than they were during the peak of the second wave in January, they do appear to be increasing in numbers.
Figures show that the number of weekly registered deaths involving coronavirus in England and Wales has now passed 1,000 for the first time in eight months.
Over the last three months, the UK has been recording an average of 136 further deaths within 28 days of a positive test result each day.
The highest number of deaths on one single day was 1,484 on January 19.
The good news is that recent figures suggest that the booster vaccine programme, which began in September, may already be having an impact on deaths.
People aged 80 and over accounted for 44.6 per cent of deaths in the most recent data – down from 46.2 per cent in the previous week and 50.4 per cent two weeks earlier.
What are the chances of another Christmas lockdown?
Some countries in Europe have brought in new lockdown measures as they struggle to contain new waves of the virus.
But ministers in the UK have insisted for weeks that another lockdown would only be introduced as a last resort.
Boris Johnson has said that while he doesn’t believe restrictions are needed at the moment, he will not rule out a lockdown over Christmas in the event of case rates rising further.
Scientists have previously warned that cases will grow in numbers if new restrictions around social distancing and mask-wearing are not introduced ahead of the busy winter period.
But the government is reluctant to reintroduce any measures that may damage the economy.
UK Hospitality chief Kate Nicholls warned that the Christmas season is “desperately important” for the survival of pubs, bars and restaurants.
“A lot of businesses are still fragile,” she pointed out. “Any knock at this point in time could have an impact on viability. People will just go to the wall.”
How to help avoid another Christmas lockdown
Ministers are urging people to wear a mask in enclosed spaces and keep up with practices, such as keeping two metres away from others and regular hand washing, despite not being mandatory.
Advice on regular rapid testing has also changed in the lead up to winter.
While it was before advised that people should use the free lateral flow tests to test themselves twice a week, people are now being told to take a test before mixing with others indoors or meeting up with vulnerable people.
What is ‘Plan B’?
(Image: Leon Neal/PA Wire)
Measures that could be introduced as part of the government’s contingency plans include a return to mandatory mask wearing in public spaces and advising people to work from home where possible.
The government has said that vaccine passports are being held in reserve and could also be used in the future.
Speaking about when such plans may be ‘triggered’, health secretary Sajid Javid said he would look carefully at the pressures on the NHS.
“If at any point there was a significant rise in hospitalisations, and we thought they were unsustainable, then we would look carefully if we need to take any of those Plan B measures,” he said.
“They would be informed by the data. Of course, we would come to the House at the time and make the appropriate response.”
This week, Mr Johnson said the government currently sees no need to introduce ‘Plan B’ restrictions.
Speaking at the CBI conference in South Shields earlier this week, Mr Johnson said: “You have got to be humble in the face of nature but at the moment we see nothing in the data to say that we need to move from plan A to plan B, or any other plan.
“The best single thing you can all do is get your booster. When you are called forward to get it, please do so.”
The situation in Europe
Europe remains at the centre of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and could see another 700,000 deaths by next spring, topping two million in total, the latest predictions suggest.
The European region reported that deaths due to Covid-19 rose to nearly 4,200 per day last week — a doubling of levels recorded at the end of September.
Cumulative deaths have now reached 1.5 million in the region.
In the last week, Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium have all adopted stricter measures including partial lockdowns to try to stem the latest surge of the coronavirus.
Germany is also set to record more than 100,000 Covid-19 deaths this week, with some politicians now calling for a vaccine mandate, like the one ordered in Austria.
Some countries are even introducing restrictions that only target the unvaccinated, in a bid to drive up vaccination rates and reduce cases.
Dr Hans Kluge, regional director for WHO Europe, said in a statement: “The Covid-19 situation across Europe and central Asia is very serious.
“We face a challenging winter ahead, but we should not be without hope, because all of us — governments, health authorities, individuals — can take decisive action to stabilise the pandemic.”
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