When Boris Johnson ordered the phased reopening of England’s shops and schools in July after a gruelling three-month lockdown, he gave the public permission to hope for a “more significant return to normality” in time for Christmas.
Four months on, and as so often in this crisis, the prime minister’s optimism appears at best premature.
With England in a second lockdown and about 54,000 people having died so far, he is approaching one of the most difficult decisions of the pandemic.
Business groups and a rump of Tory MPs have been warning of the catastrophic impact of the second shutdown on jobs and livelihoods – so does Johnson end the restrictions, as planned, on 2 December? Or does he replace them?
And if he does that, should the rules on household mixing be flexed, perhaps for a five-day period, to allow families to meet over turkey and crackers?
Government insiders expect the prime minister to make a statement early next week setting out a new system of tiers, potentially with a tougher top level – but to wait for more data before deciding which areas should fall under which rules.
Public health officials say only by next weekend will they have enough information to be able to see how much impact England’s lockdown has had in suppressing the virus.
Johnson’s spokesman has repeatedly stressed this week that the prime minister is determined to ensure people can celebrate, but the festive season remains a real worry for scientists and public health officials.
“These are really difficult decisions, and no one wants to say we shouldn’t celebrate at Christmas,” said one expert working on the pandemic.
“We all get that, but in some ways they’re making it so much worse by being so bullish about the subject. It’s almost as if everyone is expected to do something risky at Christmas to make up for the dreadful year we’ve had. It’s all presented as so black and white, as if you either do Christmas or you don’t. But there are ways you can do Christmas that minimise risk.”
Downing Street is not facing the dilemma in isolation. Officials from Westminster have been working with their counterparts from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on expectations for Christmas.
They hope to give a unified set of rules across the UK, unlike earlier phases of the pandemic when Cardiff and Edinburgh have complained vociferously about lack of consultation.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland on Friday morning, the Scottish health secretary, Jeane Freeman, said talks were continuing between the four nations and that “behind the scenes a great deal of work is going on”.
“They will be looking at advice from their chief medical officers and scientific advisers, and looking at the data as we approach Christmas … then looking at the modelling that says if you ease restrictions in various different ways what that would do to the case numbers.”
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has suggested there could be a system of bubbles – Christmas baubles, she joked – that would allow separate households to gather.
The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, who imposed a strict “firebreak” last month, warned on Friday: “If we do have a period of relaxation around Christmas … coronavirus will thrive. We need a plan for how we will respond to that.”
For Johnson, this will be one of the first major decisions about the management of the pandemic taken without two of his key lieutenants – Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain.
And just as in September, when he had to decide whether to order a “circuit breaker” lockdown, the prime minister is caught between his scientific advisers and much of the Tory party.
Back then, he decided to disregard the clear advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and take what he called a “balanced” approach, between protecting lives and safeguarding the economy.
In practice, that meant implementing a complex regional tier system, with varying levels of restrictions that involved fraught negotiations with local leaders and a very public falling out with the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.
Just 10 days after that unedifying row, rocked by warnings that the NHS risked being overwhelmed by the rapid increase in Covid cases, Johnson executed a dramatic U-turn and ordered a four-week shutdown of pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops in England.
As he pushed that decision through the House of Commons, he faced a furious backlash from an increasingly vocal and organised group of Conservative backbenchers, who believe the government must find a way to live with the virus long term instead of resorting to “draconian” restrictions.
Many of them warned they could not support any further extension of lockdown – and they have since formed themselves into a “Covid recovery group”, led by the former chief whip Mark Harper and the former European Research Group chair Steve Baker, who last week said “freedom cannot just be for Christmas”.
Having promised a vote on the new regime Johnson faces the embarrassing prospect of having to rely on Labour votes to get it through the Commons if he cannot win over Tory doubters, despite repeatedly attacking Keir Starmer for not being supportive enough of the government’s approach.
Cummings was often blamed for Johnson’s dire relationship with his own parliamentary party, but lockdown sceptics are spread widely across the party and this week’s announcement will be a key test of whether they feel any less blindsided by No 10.
The upbeat backdrop of potentially successful vaccines, which ministers plan to start rolling out as quickly as possible, will allow Johnson to point towards a more optimistic 2021. But for the moment, government scientific advisers are far from full of Christmas cheer.
Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England (PHE) warned at a briefing on Wednesday that each day of looser rules would have to be balanced by two days of tighter restrictions in the new year. PHE later issued a statement correcting that to five.
Prof Gabriel Scally of the rival Independent Sage group, went further, saying: “There is no point in having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February.”
With Rishi Sunak expected to announce a bleak outlook for the public finances at next week’s spending review, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are keen for businesses to reopen wherever possible after 2 December.
One Whitehall official acknowledged there was a “natural tension” between departments over how tough to make restrictions: “It’s not blazing rows, it’s just that one side thinks about the economy, the other thinks about public health. And it’s down to No 10 to bring the two together.”