The UK’s largest union has entered the debate regarding the Christmas COVID-19 restrictions, stating that the government has got it wrong regarding relaxing the rules over the festive period.
Unite the Union has urged the government to reconsider the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions over Christmas as fears grow that a “surge” in cases could “overwhelm” the NHS.
The current social distancing and tier-level restrictions across England are set to be relaxed over Christmas – allowing up to three households to mix over five days. Prime Minister Boris Johnson today held a press conference urging families to limit the length and scale of Christmas gatherings – but stopped short of changing the existing rules regarding the relaxation of restrictions.
The Prime Minister said: “A smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas, and shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas”, as he suggested families should see the five day/three household rules as a maximum limit, rather than a target.
Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, echoed these sentiments, saying that just because three households were allowed to mix for five days over Christmas, it did not mean they should. He compared it to driving at 70mph in icy conditions, which would be legal but “not sensible”.
The prime minister said the coronavirus situation was “alas worse and more challenging than we had hoped when we first set the rules”, concluding: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, and I’m afraid that this year I do mean little.”
Despite this new “re-framing” of the advice, Unite has backed calls by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Health Service Journal (HSJ) for the government to drop plans to relax the social distancing rules over Christmas to help ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 cases in the new year.
Unite said that it is “highly concerned” that hospitals are already currently running close to capacity and problems of demand could be made even worse if there is a sustained spell of bad weather. A big increase in coronavirus-related admissions following the Christmas relaxation would therefore risk overwhelming the NHS.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said: “No one wants to be a Grinch at Christmas but relaxing the rules for five days is a dangerous folly. If the government goes ahead with its plans all the hard work will be thrown out of the window and a surge in Covid cases could result in the NHS being overwhelmed.
“January is always the busiest time of year for the NHS and if action is not taken now, Unite members working in the NHS do not believe it will be able to cope. The blame for this looming fiasco must fall at the door of the government.
“The pandemic has already stretched the capacity of the NHS. The BMJ/HSJ report says the number of patients waiting over a year for non-urgent treatment has risen from a few hundred to 160,000. It will take years to reduce waiting times and the cost could be further suffering, physical and psychological anguish and loss of life.
“The government is guilty of once again providing mixed messages, telling people to abide by the tier system but that there is no need to follow it at Christmas. For once the government must put the NHS first and follow the science and accept it made the wrong initial call about Christmas meetings. A failure to do so will result in a surge of Covid cases, unnecessary suffering and needless loss of life.”