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Yuletide Lockdowns and Cancelling Christmas

The mind changer in Downing Street has struck again. With UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the helm, changes of direction are compulsive, natural and sudden. The U-Turn has become the prosaic expectation. “Too often it looks like this government licks its finger and sticks it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing,” Tory MP Charles Walker, deputy chair of the 1922 Committee, lamented in August. “This is not a sustainable way to approach the business of governing and government.”

As unsustainable as it might be, the UK was treated to another round of vigorous U-turning ahead of Christmas by a leader who radiates buffoonery and steady incompetence. On December 16, a decision was taken to ease COVID-19 restrictions over the festive period, a view distinctly at odds with a good number in the scientific establishment.

In November, submissions by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to the government warned that mixing over the Christmas period could well lead to greater spread in the event restrictions were eased. According to a paper by the operational subgroup of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), a relaxation “over the festive period will result in increased transmission and increased prevalence, potentially by a large amount.” The group also warned that, “SARS-Cov-19 has demonstrated high secondary attack rates in households (with estimates of up to 50% in one household infected from one infected member).”

The analysis also warned that the “bubble” policy – one where a certain number of households would be permitted to mix over a set number of days over the Christmas period – was still burdened by risk. “Allowing households to ‘bubble’ (i.e. effectively form a single, larger, isolated household) reduces the risks, but is very susceptible to small numbers of links between bubbles.”

Despite this, Johnson was adamant in his Wednesday press gathering: the festive season would be an exception. “I want to be clear we don’t want to, as I say, to ban Christmas, to cancel it.” To do so “would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many in this country.” This was a pointed reference to opponents sceptical about his epidemiological grasp of the dangers. Labour leader Keir Starmer had previously pressed him during Parliament Minister’s Questions about any existing assessments on the impact “on infection rates and increased pressure on the NHS.”

Johnson’s response was far from helpful and, given the circumstances, ill conceived. “I wish he had the guts to say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and to cancel Christmas. I think that’s what he’s driving at, Mr Speaker.” But even conservative forums such as The Spectator had to admit that the prime minister was taking an awful gamble: “that people will suddenly start adhering to government guidance and severely restrict their contact with their families, even though the law does not force them to do so.”

In his December 16 speech, Johnson praised the rollout of the vaccination programme. With 138,000 recipients of the first dose, he felt there was “no doubt we are winning and we will win our long struggle against the virus.” The reproduction rate of the virus had been brought below 1. But Britons had to hold their nerve. Infections were still rising in parts of the country. London had moved into Tier 3 restrictions.

An appeal was made to those in the UK “to think hard and in detail about the days ahead and whether you can do more to protect yourself and others.” Never tiring of confusing the citizenry, such regulations were to involve limits of three households meeting over five days. “I want to stress that these are maximums, not targets to aim for.” Think, he pleaded, of having a smaller and shorter Christmas.

On December 19, the mind changer was again in full flow. The very idea of holding Christmas was challenged and Johnson found himself doing exactly what he had accused the Labour leader of wishing. “I am sorry that the situation has deteriorated since I last spoke to you three days ago.” The reason given by Johnson in his address was ominous. Data from the advisory group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) had revealed the emergence of a new variant of the virus. “NERVTAG’s early analysis suggests the new variant could increase R [the reproduction number] by 0.4 or greater. Although there is considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant.”

This new variant had been skipping at speed through London, the South East and East of England. As things stood, it was seemingly not more lethal or causing illness of greater severity. This new incarnation was also unlikely to blunt the effect of the vaccines. But it was clear to Johnson that not taking immediate steps would lead to soaring infections, straining the NHS and causing the deaths of “many thousands more.”

The consequence: London, the South East and the East of England were to move into tier 4. These have become generally familiar: the necessity of staying at home and working from home; the closure of non-essential services in retail, indoor gyms and leisure facilities. People are not permitted to enter or leave Tier 4 areas; and residents in such designated zones cannot stay overnight away from home. Exemptions apply for exercise, childcare and those who cannot work from home.

The corollary of such restrictions was that Britons could not “continue with Christmas as planned.” Tier 4 restrictions meant that households were to be self-contained, “though support bubbles will remain in place for those at risk of loneliness or isolation.” To add just another sliver of confusion, household mixing would be confined to Christmas Day for those in Tier 3 zones.

Not all gloom, Johnson unfurled the metaphorical flag. “The UK was the first country in the western world to start using a clinically approved vaccine.” Nothing, however, could take away from the fact that Johnson had again been outmanoeuvred by facts and circumstance.

In the scathing opinion of The Observer, it was a decision taken too late, causing grief to families “who have been encouraged to look forward to Christmas for weeks by a prime minister who, in characteristic form, foolishly over-promised in an attempt to avoid being the bearer of bad news.”

In the meantime, Johnson will have to deal with an increasing number of irate Tory backbenchers keen to recall parliament. Walker is one them, increasingly suspicious of the government’s motives. “The Government, in my view, knew on Thursday, possibly even Wednesday, that they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited till Parliament had gone.” A Johnson tactic, through and through.


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  1. Carl Marks

    Merry Lockdown and a Sniffly New Year!

  2. Matters Not


    household mixing would be confined to Christmas Day

    Breath-takingly stupid! Then again, Boris appointed Abbott as an adviser.

    But no disappointment for the virus, it will be a good reproductive Christmas after all. Now able to feast before the vaccine(s) take effect.

  3. Andrew Smith

    Who would want to be British, or more to the point, English? Clusterf*** confluence of both Brexit* and Covid while being led by a clown…. leading to inevitably severe economic consequences for the working population without guaranteed income (vs. Brexit dominated by regional ‘working class’ and middle class pensioner/retiree population on guaranteed minimum income).

    Further, one is a little sceptical of how this mutation emerged in media, and good that Binoy actually quoted NERVTAG’s neutral science language:

    ‘“NERVTAG’s early analysis suggests the new variant could increase R [the reproduction number] by 0.4 or greater. Although there is considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant.”’

    It does include conditional language of ‘could’ and ‘considerable uncertainty’, however it has given Johnson a reason to cancel Xmas/lock down after his and others’ preferred libertarian approach was found to be sub-optimal.

    Informally know of several English, let’s say ten, with half supporting the Brexit vote; now only 2/5 support Brexit….. ‘what were we thinking?’ (who knows, many Brexiters were happy to follow tabloid media and were busy attacking anything EU/Remain then immigration…).

  4. Al

    Andrew, it might be a case of the UK narrative needs to get mutated to make things sound worse than they are so that the govt can ram through more change onto its baffled audience. One way to get a higher R value is to increase the PCR test threshold cycle above 36. If the cycles are pushed over 45 then all tests will be positive to covid.

    If you haven’t already, you can watch Dr Fauci, in a panel discussion, talk of the PCR test validity in relation to number of cycles (Q/A from about 3min 50sec) – TWiV 641: COVID-19 with Dr. Anthony Fauci –

    “Dr. Anthony Fauci joins TWiV to discuss SARS-CoV-2 transmission, testing, immunity, pathogenesis, vaccines, and preparedness.”

    Dr Fauci recommends a cycle rate of 35 to limit false positives.
    Declaration of test threshold cycle values are part of mandatory reporting in Florida USA –

    Anyone getting a PCR test in Australia should be able to ask what was the cycle threshold value of their test.
    This will instill confidence in testing.

  5. Matters Not

    If the UK was on a mission to make things sound worse than they are, then they’ve had outstanding success.

    More than 40 countries have banned UK arrivals because of concerns about the spread of a new variant of coronavirus. Flights from the UK are being suspended to countries across the world including Spain, India and Hong Kong. … European Union member states met earlier in Brussels to discuss a co-ordinated response, with officials suggesting a requirement for tests could be imposed on all people arriving from the UK.

    Boris might not be the sharpest knife in the draw but what explanation is offered re the implied over-reaction of more than 40 other Nations? Or are these Nations part of the conspiracy as well? Sometimes – we might be better off entertaining the notion that on the odd occasion something approaching the truth might just be on the table. Or is fake news the default (starting) position?

    As for the average punter (under stress) asking about the cycle threshold value of their test so they can make judgements re false positives is extremely unlikely. Or at least that’s the case in my world.

  6. Al

    Matters Not, ok got it, in your world, false positives are a conspiracy theory and do not exist. Cool, question nothing.
    I think you underestimate the average punter. If the average person knew there is a possibility of being duded by rigged testing do you think many of them would bother queuing for hours to get a PCR test without asking the relevant question?

    At some point some people are going to ask this question as a matter of course, ‘What’s the cycle threshold value for my PCR test?’
    BTW, have you been tested and, if you had one, do you know what was the cycle value of the test?

    It doesn’t surprise you didn’t understand the scientific discussion in the video – TWiV 641: COVID-19 with Dr. Anthony Fauci –

  7. DrakeN

    AI, what a strange position you hold on this topic.
    Do you really imagine that the average punter would understand the implications of the PCR test threshold since there is no mention of it in the mainstream news media, nor in the ‘official’ pronouncements whic have poured out unceasingly since this horrible disease has taken hold of us.
    I am an inveterate consumer of news media from a wide raft of sources, as well as a severe critic of governments and their bureaucracies, but this is the first reference to the matter which I have encountered.
    So, what of the general public?
    It is quite unlikely that the majority of people will ever reach the point of asking your question: ” What’s the cycle threshold value for my PCR test?” any more than they are likely to ask how many trees in Surabya are being cut down to make for the growing of the Palm Oil in their Christmas chocolates; nor how many Orang Utangs are unhomed in the process.
    People are not quite as aware of life’s realities as you seem to imagine that they are.

  8. Matters Not

    Al re:

    ok got it, in your world, false positives are a conspiracy theory and do not exist.

    So that’s the meaning(s) you give to my post? Seems like you have a significant comprehension problem (among others.). Yes false positives are a problem but perhaps a more significant problem is false negatives. False positives don’t contribute to virus spread (the person hasn’t the capacity to infect others) while false negatives have an enhanced potential to do just that. At least that’s the scientific experience.

    As usual, your judgement seems distorted by conspiracy theory as evidenced by the following – possibility of being duded by rigged testing. Yep those (deliberately) rigged tests are a significant problem – at least in your world.

    But in one sense, you’re right, my post-graduate qualifications aren’t in epidemiology – which is not to suggest that I can’t bring a critical consciousness to bear, particularly if it requires logical thought.

  9. Jean Wilson

    Still waiting for proof that this ‘virus’ actually exists. It has not, so far, been isolated or purified. Where is the proof?

  10. DrakeN

    @ Jean WIlson

    have you been in some kind of coma for the last year?

    The virus was identified almost as soon as the pandemic began.

    Perhaps you require individual notification of every scientific study as personal right?

  11. Matters Not

    Jean Wilson – what type of proof are you looking for? While it’s not visible to the naked eye, there’s been any number of ‘photos’ from electron microscopes. Here’s a link(s).



    Perhaps they’re all faked like the moon landings? But maybe not!

    Again what type of proof are you looking for? A live interview? Or one with captions?

  12. Michael Taylor

    Jean, if you look closely enough you’ll see them glistening in the chem trails.

    Or you might even find them behind a grassy knoll.

    Or if you know any reptilians, ask them kindly and they’ll show you some.

    They are out there.

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