The Government is facing a dilemma over relaxing lockdown measures over Christmas then potentially having to bring them back for longer in the new year.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce a plan in the next two weeks that could see restrictions being eased for up to five days around December 25.
But that has prompted a backlash from some scientists who warned it could worsen the coronavirus epidemic in the UK.
SAGE advisor Prof Andrew Hayward told the BBC: “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.”
And the question on whether restrictions should be lifted for Christmas was one that has split people out and about in Durham city centre on Thursday.
Construction director Johnny Harrison, 39, from Bishop Auckland, was certain that offering the public a brief window in the restrictions would give the country a boost.
He said: “I think it is important that families do get together over Christmas.
“A lot of people are struggling and I think they need that little bit of comfort, be it two or three days, even a day.
“I think it is important for people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Pensioner Christine Griffiths, who was out shopping in a mask, agreed that sacrificing time in January would be worth it if rules around Christmas were relaxed.
“That’s fine,” she said.
“I think it’s a good idea. As long as we can be with our family at Christmas, then I’m certainly in favour of tightening restrictions afterwards.”
Student Tenaya Cooper did not agree with relaxing the rules if it meant a longer lockdown, and even longer not being able to see loved-ones for the sake of Christmas Day.
“I would rather have a month of seeing my gran than a day and then not be able to see her for ages,” she said.
She would prefer to continue the measures with the view to making 2021 better for everyone.
Her friend Miriam Thompson was keen to get home for Christmas but did not feel the suggested plan was “sustainable”.
She said: “What are we willing to sacrifice for Christmas when it’s just a tradition and this is people’s lives?
“I’m not sure, although I would like to go home.”
All four nations of the UK have been holding talks to ensure any approach is consistent across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Reports suggest people from multiple households, perhaps three, will be able to gather for three to five days under one roof.
But that could mean a month of stricter lockdown in return – as SAGE believes every day of looser rules could require five days of tighter ones.
Speculation has brimmed over after plans were leaked to the media.
Prof Hayward, who is a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL), said the country 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 added that he believed “there is a cost” to gathering families together.
He said: “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.”
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