A third national lockdown was this evening looking increasingly on the cards as coronavirus infections continued their upwards surge and ministers in Boris Johnson’s government said they were ruling nothing out.
Mr Johnson himself did not rule out England following Wales and Northern Ireland into lockdown after Christmas, saying only that he was hoping to be able to avoid it.
Meanwhile a chorus of scientists added to pressure for restraint over the five-day festive break, as the all-important reproduction rate – known as R – rose back above the threshold of one, with infections rising in all parts of the country and London, the southeast and east of England hit hardest.
Official figures showed an additional 28,507 confirmed cases on Friday, with a further 489 reported fatalities bringing the total to 66,541, setting the scene for the toll of pandemic casualties to surpass the 67,100 UK civilian deaths during the Second World War at some point over the weekend.
University of Edinburgh professor of public health Linda Bauld said that Mr Johnson’s easing of restrictions over Christmas “increasingly looks like the wrong decision at the wrong time”.
She warned that a “worst-case-scenario” spike in cases following festive get-togethers could even result in a slowdown in the campaign of vaccinations, if the NHS is put under greater pressure and staff are absent due to Covid-19 or caring responsibilities.
“Everyone recognises the importance of this holiday period for many around the country, and the need to see loved ones who have been cut off from friends and family for long periods,” said Prof Bauld. “But by allowing travel around the UK and changing guidance to allow household mixing indoors we are setting ourselves up for a miserable January with tough restrictions.”
The Independent Sage group of scientists issued an appeal for families to think again about plans to take advantage of the permission to meet in groups of up to three households between 23-27 December.
“Whatever your plans are, it’s not too late to change them given the seriousness of the situation,” said Professor Susan Michie, a senior health psychologist from University College London.
Asked whether he expected England to go back into lockdown during a visit to Bolton, Mr Johnson replied: “We’re hoping very much that we’ll be able to avoid anything like that. But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks.”
But his schools minister Nick Gibbs was more explicit about the possibility that the government may have to turn to what Mr Johnson refers to as the “nuclear option” of lockdown, telling broadcasters: “We rule nothing out.”
Amid warnings that infections could double over the Christmas break, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) said restrictions are likely to have to be tightened once more.
“At the moment it doesn’t look like the tier system is holding the epidemic wave back, unfortunately,” Professor John Edmunds told Sky News.
“So I think we are going to have to look at these measures and perhaps tighten them up, we really will. It’s a horrible thing to have to say but we are in quite a difficult position.”
Huge swathes of the southeast were going into the toughest tier 3 restrictions on Saturday, shutting pubs and restaurants from Portsmouth on the south coast to commuter belt towns and villages in the counties around London.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged the prime minister to set out his plan for averting a third national lockdown.
“We can see that the tiered system is not working in the way the prime minister promised,” he said. “More people are going into the higher tiers, so it’s not strong enough.
“Whether the prime minister rules it out or not is not the central question. I think the central question, prime minister, is what are you doing now to prevent the chances of a third lockdown?”
New figures from Sage and the Government Office for Science put the R figure for the UK between 1.1 and 1.2, up from 0.9 to 1 last week, meaning that each person with coronavirus is infecting an average of more than one other, allowing the disease to spread exponentially.
Office for National Statistics data modelling showed infections rising in all age groups except young adults aged 17-24 and 50-69 year olds.
In Enfield, north London, an estimated 2.5 per cent of the population had Covid last week, a rate matched only in Leicester and South Tyneside. Across London, the infection rate stood at 1.4 per cent of residents, comparable to the East Midlands, once again becoming a hotspot.
In total, 567,300 people are projected to have had coronavirus in the week to 12 December in England, the equivalent of one in 95 of the population and an increase of 18 per cent on the number the previous week, said the ONS.
Independent Sage mathematical biologist Dr Kit Yates warned that infections could “easily double” over the Christmas break.
“The situation across the country is deteriorating quite rapidly,” he said.
“Even our toughest set of measures are not enough to slow this virus down, and with Christmas mixing on the horizon we find this extremely worrying.”
It comes as president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Katherine Henderson, described a “real perfect storm” for hospitals as they try to balance increased numbers of Covid-19 patients with non-Covid work and a lack of beds.
“It seems to me we need to do whatever it takes to get the situation firmly under control so that we can vaccinate people and then move forward,” she said.
The Royal College of Nursing warned the NHS faces an “unrelenting tsunami” of coronavirus cases this winter.
Chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair, called for “fresh and more detailed” advice from ministers, saying: “What is at stake is coming into sharp focus.
“Travelling and family visits associated with this time of year will undoubtedly lead to more cases, more pressure on NHS and care services, and more deaths. By turning the second and third waves into an unrelenting tsunami, we would begin 2021 in the worst possible way.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies