A LEADING public health expert has said easing coronavirus curbs over Christmas will lead to to people burying their loved ones in January.

Professor Gabriel Scally delivered the stark warning as the four UK nations consider lifting some restrictions over the holiday period allowing families to mix.

But the proposals have raised alarm bells among scientists and academics who are concerned that such a move could be followed by a spike in deaths weeks later.

The UK has already the highest number of fatalities to Covid 19 in Europe and marked the grim milestone last week of more than 50,000 deaths since the pandemic began.

"We have not made nine months of sacrifices to throw it all away at Christmas," tweeted Scally, professor of public health and planning, at the University of the West of England (UWE) and president of the section of epidemiology and public health of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Scally, who is a member of the Independent SAGE committee, also referred to an interview he gave on Good Morning Britain earlier today, when he said: "There is no point having a merry Christmas then burying friends and family in January."

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A similar message was also put by a UK Government scientific advisor who said mixing at Christmas poses "substantial risks", particularly for older people, and there is "far too much emphasis" on having a normal festive period.

Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL) and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the UK was "on the cusp" of being able to vaccinate older populations and it would be "tragic" to throw away the gains made in suppressing coronavirus.

He also attacked Boris Johnson's Government for "inconsistent" messages over what to do, saying it was clear that if people wanted to avoid Covid-19 they should not mix indoors.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Hayward told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Mixing at Christmas does pose substantial risks, particularly in terms of bringing together generations with high incidence of infection with the older generations who currently have much lower levels of infection and are at most risk of dying if they catch Covid.

"My personal view is we're putting far too much emphasis on having a near-normal Christmas.

"We know respiratory infections peak in January so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this."

Asked if people should worry more about the health and welfare of their parents and grandparents than gathering together for a movie over Christmas, Prof Andrew Hayward from UCL replied: "Well exactly.

"We're on the cusp of being able to protect those elderly people who we love through vaccination and it would be tragic to throw that opportunity away and waste the gains we've made during lockdown by trying to return to normality over the holidays."

Hayward said he believed "there is a cost" to gathering families together, adding: "When policies are undulating between stay at home to save lives, eat out to help out, the tier system, second lockdown and proposals for an amnesty on social distancing, it's a highly inconsistent message.

"Whereas in fact the things that people need to do to stay safe and to keep their loved ones safe are relatively simple.

"Avoid, as far as possible, indoor close contact with people outside of your household, avoid crowded places and protect the most vulnerable by not putting them at unnecessary risk."

The expert said the reproduction number - the R value - of coronavirus still needed to get below 1 for the epidemic to shrink.

"Approaching 1 is not good enough - that still means the infection is increasing," he said.

"It needs to be clearly below 1 and it needs to get to low levels, rather than the high levels that we still have."

Asked whether he would impose further restrictions in England throughout December such as stricter tiers than before lockdown, he said "it is a very difficult balance".

He added: "We would need to be very mindful of the fact that this last period of the year is absolutely critical economically for many businesses so I think we do need to find a way of allowing them to function, but in a responsible way."

The UK Government is still working out details of how people can come together over the festive period, with Downing Street saying families should be able to meet up after a "difficult year".

Reports suggest households might be allowed to mix indoors for a five-day period from Christmas Eve, and that ministers are considering plans to allow three or four households to form bubbles.

However, a five-day easing could mean a potential 25-day period of tighter measures into January if the Government was to follow advice from scientists.

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The First Minister yesterday raised the idea that families in Scotland could be allowed to form social bubbles - or "baubles" - to enable them to get together over the festive season.

Nicola Sturgeon said it is among others being discussed as part of efforts to temporarily loosen rules over Christmas.

She also raised hopes that Hogmanay could be covered by any changes.

She said: "I want people to have the ability to see loved ones at Christmas. I want to see loved ones at Christmas.

"And we're determined to try to make that possible."

More than two million people in west central Scotland, including in Glasgow and its surrounding areas, will enter near-lockdown from Friday at 6pm.

The First Minister has previously said the tough, three-week restrictions will help suppress the virus ahead of Christmas and the winter period.

UK ministers are considering loosening rules over a five-day period starting on Christmas Eve.

Asked about this during her coronavirus briefing yesterday, the First Minister said four-nation discussions are ongoing.

She said: "We are all desperate for some normality at Christmas, and I absolutely include myself in that.

"The Scottish Government right now is working very closely and well with the other UK nations to try to agree a way for that to happen.

"We want to have the same position across the UK, given family patterns that exist."

She said it was important to reduce the prevalence of the virus ahead of Christmas.

She later added: "In general terms, yes I do think at Christmas it is important that, rather than leave people with restrictions that are so tight that many people will try to get round [them] in order to see loved ones at Christmas, it is better to do what we've tried to do all along and treat people like grown ups, and say, ok, here is perhaps a bit of leeway that as long as we all behave responsibly within, allows us to have some time with loved ones at Christmas.

"What the parameters are around that, what the numbers around that are - there are no decisions.

"But we do want to allow people - and it will be within limits, undoubtedly - to see people that right now they're not able to see because of the very strict ban on household mixing."

She said: "The lower we can get infection levels now, the fewer people going into Christmas will have this virus, so the lower your chance will be that one of your relatives coming to your house for Christmas Day, maybe, will have it and pass it on."

Asked if it was possible families could be allowed to mix freely by forming a social "bubble", she said: "Yes, that's possible, but that is not the same as saying that's been decided - the idea of a bubble, or bauble is maybe a more appropriate way of articulating it at Christmas.

"These are the kind of things that we're discussing and trying to come to a sensible view on."

Elsewhere, she said Hogmanay is also very important in Scotland.

She added: "We do have to take that into account in our planning and remember that we need to think across the whole festive period."