LONDON — It’s the new “go to work, don’t go to work.”
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson risked a public backlash Wednesday with new guidance on how people in England should spend Christmas. He advised against overnight stays and travel from areas with a lot of coronavirus cases, like London, but declined to change laws that enable people to form “Christmas bubbles” of three households with family and friends between December 23 and 27.
With infection rates rising again in many parts of the U.K., Johnson said he and the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had decided the situation going into the festive season was “worse and more challenging than we had hoped when we first set the rules.”
However, rather than scrap Christmas bubbles, announced only a month ago, Johnson said he was instead urging people to demonstrate “the greatest possible personal responsibility” and have a “smaller” and “shorter” Christmas.
“When we say three households can meet on five days, I want to stress these are maximums, not targets to aim for,” the prime minister said. “And of course it is always going to be safest to minimize the number of people you meet.”
“So have yourselves a merry little Christmas,” Johnson concluded. “And I’m afraid this year I do mean little.”
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty went so far as to compare any decision to exercise the Christmas relaxation freedoms to their full extent to driving down an icy road at 70mph. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s sensible in any way,” he said.
The confusing picture adds to a year of communications blunders from Johnson’s government. An appeal in May to no longer stay at home, but rather to “stay alert,” combined with confusion about whether people should be traveling to work or not, led to the prime minister being lampooned by comedian Matt Lucas in a viral video. One leading pollster said the clip was subsequently mentioned in every focus group they had conducted on the government’s response to the pandemic.
Responding to the new Christmas advice, Gavin Morgan, a psychologist and member of the government’s independent advisory Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) said that ministers’ messaging this year had been “characterised by muddle, by confusion and by contradiction” and this had the potential to undermine public adherence to the new guidance.
“Personal responsibility is of massive importance” Morgan told Times Radio. “But the government’s made it harder really, by their confused, muddled messaging over the over recent months.”
Johnson also advised that people “might want to” delay seeing any elderly relatives until they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The U.K. is the first Western country to have rolled out a mass vaccination program, also announcing on Wednesday that 137,897 people have been vaccinated so far U.K.-wide.
The Christmas bubbles law had applied U.K.-wide but each nation has now issued slightly varying guidance to their citizens about how to plan for Christmas, with some changing laws. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon advised people to spend Christmas at home and if they must form a Christmas bubble, only to do so for one day. In Wales, only two households will be able to form a Christmas bubble by law.