Covid: Christmas safety advice set to be strengthened

Guidance around celebrating Christmas safely across the UK is expected to be significantly strengthened in the coming days, the BBC has been told.

However, it is unlikely the agreed rules – allowing up to three households to form a bubble – will change.

Officials from all four nations held talks on Tuesday – and more are scheduled to take place on Wednesday.

It comes amid concern that relaxing the restrictions will fuel a further surge in Covid-19 case numbers.

Two leading medical journals described the current rules as “rash”.

Final decisions are still to be taken, but people are likely to be urged to think carefully about travelling and to stay local where possible – while also remaining cautious when forming bubbles.

They will be told the relaxations are limits, not targets, it is expected.

It is still hoped a common approach can be agreed across the four nations.

Under the agreed Christmas rules, travel restrictions will be eased from 23 to 27 December to allow up to three households to form a bubble and stay overnight at each other’s homes.

A spokeswoman for Northern Ireland’s government said scientific advisers would be consulted ahead of any decision, while a Welsh government spokesman said talks on Wednesday would “confirm the position”.

Ahead of the talks, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued there was a “case” for tightening the planned freedoms to combat a rise in infections and indicated she could break with the four-nations approach.

Meanwhile, another 18,450 cases and 506 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported in the UK on Tuesday, government figures showed.

The four nations have been taking very different approaches to restrictions in the last few months, so agreeing a common approach to Christmas was no small ask.

But there are big questions now about what changes should be made given the rising number of Covid cases in many areas.

I understand there are no plans to make changes to the restrictions in England; meaning it’s unlikely the legal rules will change.

However, we can expect firmer guidance in the next few days. One source on the call with the four nations told me there was an acceptance tougher messaging was needed.

There has been discussion about travel. Some are particularly worried about people moving from areas where the virus is spreading fast, to areas where it’s fairly rare, and taking the virus with them. The new guidance could cover that – as well as reminding people the rules are a maximum, not a target.

It’s not impossible that different parts of the UK will take different decisions. But there is still hope they can agree when talks reconvene on Wednesday morning.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called on ministers to hold an emergency review of the plans.

Earlier, No 10 said the rules were “under constant review” but it still intended to allow families to meet up.

The prime minister’s spokesman said the government had been clear that people needed to “remain cautious and vigilant” during the five days of relaxed rules.

According to a YouGov poll, a majority of people (57%) in Great Britain believe the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas should be scrapped.

Some 31% said the easing should go ahead as planned, while 12% said they were unsure.

In a joint editorial criticising the UK’s Christmas rules, the editors of British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal wrote that the government was “about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.

They stressed that demand on the NHS was increasing, and added that a new strain of coronavirus “has introduced further potential jeopardy”.

If the UK’s Christmas plans are not changed, BMJ editor in chief Fiona Godlee said hospitals could become overwhelmed with a surge in Covid patients.

She told BBC News: “On the current trend, if nothing is done, by New Year’s Day there will be as many people in hospital with Covid-19 as there were at the peak of the first phase in April.

“That’s even without the Christmas relaxation – so if you add that on top, and then on top of that the winter pressures that we always see in the NHS at winter, you will see a worrying scenario of people not being able to get the care they need.”

She also said England’s tiered system was “not succeeding in what it set out to do”, as case numbers have continued to increase in some areas in the top tiers.

A review of which areas of England are in which tier is scheduled to take place on Wednesday.

It has already been announced that some 10.8 million people across London, Essex and Hertfordshire will join tier three from 00:01 GMT on Wednesday, bringing the total number of people living under the toughest restrictions to 34 million people – or 61% of England’s population.

Under tier three – very high alert – rules, pubs and restaurants must close, except for takeaway and delivery, and indoor entertainment venues such as theatres, bowling alleys and cinemas must remain shut.

In other developments;

Nine cases of new Covid strain reported in Scotland

Nine cases of a new variant of Covid-19 first identified in England have been reported in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed.

The cases were all detected in the Greater Glasgow area, and date back to the end of November.

The World Health Organisation has been notified about the new strain of the virus, with detailed studies ongoing.

Ms Sturgeon said there is nothing to suggest it causes a more severe illness in people, but it may spread faster.

She said people should not “prematurely overreact” to the development.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed on Monday that the new variant of coronavirus had been recorded in at least 60 different local authority areas.

These cases were found predominantly in Kent, but it has now been confirmed that they have spread as far as Glasgow.

Nine cases have been identified in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area, dating back to the end of November – although almost 15,000 new cases of coronavirus have been reported in Scotland overall across that period.

There is, as yet, “nothing to suggest” that the new strain causes more severe illness, or that it could prove resistant to vaccines.

Ms Sturgeon was briefed by the chief medical officer on Monday, and will take part in a four-nation call with other UK leaders later on Tuesday.

She told MSPs: “It is important to stress there is no evidence at this stage that this new variant is likely to cause more serious illness in people.

“And while the initial analysis of it suggests that it may be more transmissible, with a faster growth rate than existing variants, that is not yet certain.

“It may instead be the case that it has been identified in areas where the virus is already spreading more rapidly.”

Scottish Conservative group leader Ruth Davidson said the new strain was “a cause of great concern”, asking what was being done “to assess the virulence of the strain” and its transmission rate.

Ms Sturgeon said analysis was being undertaken by Public Health England, but said people should not “prematurely overreact”.

She added: “It is important to say that none of what is currently known about this yet is absolutely certain.”

Exeter road rage driver jailed for attack on shoppers

A man who drove into two shoppers and a police officer in a fit of rage has been jailed for six-and-a-half years.

Damien Price’s victims were sent flying into the air when he hit them at speeds of up to 30mph in a supermarket car park in Exeter.

He pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm, attempting to cause grievous bodily harm and assault at Exeter Crown Court.

The judge said he had used his “car as a weapon”.

On March 12 at a Sainsbury’s in Pinhoe, 30-year-old Price lost his temper with a 63-year-old man after a minor stand-off and got out of his car to attack him.

He then got back into his car and reversed at the man and his wife.

She suffered a serious injury to the side of her body, which still causes her pain, and has been diagnosed with severe PTSD, the court heard.

Price, of Russet Avenue, Exeter, tried to escape the car park, but was blocked by shoppers.

While driving at high speed looking for a way out, Sgt Alex Howden stood in his path and raised a hand to try and stop him.

Price accelerated and drove at the officer, throwing him over the bonnet and leaving him with a broken leg.

He was still raging when arrested, the court heard, and bit a policeman on the shoulder twice.

Judge Peter Johnson also gave Price a 10-year driving ban after his release.

He described his reaction as “grossly disproportionate” and said he was at risk of “harming complete strangers and members of the public”.

Warren Robinson, defending, said Price suffered from a severe form of Asperger Syndrome that caused him to react irrationally to a stressful situation.

Police officer sacked over sexual relationship with vulnerable woman

A police officer has been sacked for gross misconduct after initiating a sexual relationship with a woman he knew was in a vulnerable state of mind.

A Police Ombudsman investigation found he had caused her “psychological distress.”

The relationship began after he called to her home in February 2019, following a report about concerns for her safety.

The woman’s details were already held in the police system as someone known to be vulnerable.

When questioned, the officer later claimed to have met her through a dating app, but this was contradicted by evidence obtained from his mobile phone.

It showed contact only began between the pair after he called at her home.

Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson said: “This officer was in a position of trust and authority and the evidence suggests his actions were deliberate, planned and caused psychological distress to a vulnerable woman.

“This type of exploitative behaviour has no place in policing and the decision demonstrates that such actions will not be tolerated within the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”

The PSNI accepted a Police Ombudsman recommendation that the allegations against the officer should be heard at a misconduct hearing.

After considering the evidence, a panel ruled that the officer should be dismissed immediately for gross misconduct.

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