Confusion has been cast over millions of people’s Christmas plans weeks after the whole of the UK was told coronavirus restrictions would be relaxed to allow limited mixing over the festive period. The scheduled relaxation was thrown into jeopardy by rising infection rates and warnings that the freedoms would cause a spiralling death toll and the NHS to be overwhelmed.
Wales was preparing to change the law to reduce the number of households permitted to meet up, while England and Scotland were issuing advice to limit interactions as much as possible.
– So what’s the law?
The regulations currently allow for a five-day “Christmas window” from December 23-27 when people can form exclusive bubbles of up to three households across the UK.
Boris Johnson told the Commons that there was “unanimous agreement” across the four nations “that we should proceed in principle with the existing regulations”.
But the Welsh Government later ruled otherwise and said it would change the law to limit mixing to just two households at Christmas.
– What’s the advice for England?
The Prime Minister said that “we don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans” but issued a warning for people to be “extremely cautious” over their actions.
He later told a press conference that the public should have a “merry little Christmas – and, I’m afraid this year I do mean little” in passing the judgment on whether to meet up in smaller numbers over a shorter period to the public.
Mr Johnson insisted that the limits on meeting are maximums and “not a target to aim for”.
And he advised people to minimise their contacts with others “to the lowest possible” for five days before mixing with loved ones at Christmas.
He also recommended against travel from high prevalence areas to those not so badly affected and against overnight stays.
But he did not go as far as other national leaders in advising people to specifically limit their Christmases to only two households as others have done.
Updated guidance issued by the Government called on people to seriously think about whether they need to form a Christmas bubble or not, especially regarding people over 70 or those who are “clinically extremely vulnerable”.
The statement also stressed the need for ventilation during bubble get-togethers.
People were urged to minimise contact over Christmas and on New Year’s Eve.
The guidance also said: “You should not gather as a Christmas bubble in a hotel, hostel or B&B in any tier unless a member of your bubble lives there permanently.”
– Is it the same in Wales?
Not any more. First Minister Mark Drakeford first changed his advice for the Welsh public so that “only two households should come together to form an exclusive Christmas bubble” over the five-day period.
A Welsh Government spokesman later said this change would be made into law.
“It makes it easier, so we don’t have the position where the law says one thing and the guidance says something else,” the spokesman explained.
Mr Drakeford earlier said: “The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus.
“None of us wants to be ill this Christmas. And we don’t want to give coronavirus to our close family or friends.”
Wales will then go into full lockdown from December 28 to last an initial three weeks.
– And Scotland?
Nicola Sturgeon said that her “strong recommendation” is that people do not mix households over the period in what is “unequivocally the safest way to spend Christmas”.
The Scottish First Minister said that meetings should take place outdoors if possible but if it was “essential” to meet inside then she advised people to meet for only one day and to not stay overnight.
Ms Sturgeon urged people against travelling between areas of high and low infection rates and asked people to consider “postponing” Christmas.
“The reality is that this Christmas simply can’t be normal. But we have every reason to hope that next year’s will be much more normal,” she added.
– How about Northern Ireland?
First Minister Arlene Foster said people needed to take “all and every precaution” when they come together at Christmas but could not rule out further restrictions in the days afterwards.
Health Minister Robin Swann is due to bring proposals for further Covid-19 restrictions to the Stormont Executive on Thursday but Mrs Foster said she did not expect a recommendation for new measures to be introduced before the festive break.
Mrs Foster said she noted the more stringent advice on household mixing from her counterpart in Wales, but added: “I am not going to prejudge what the minister is going to bring to us but undoubtedly we will have something to say tomorrow and over the next few days.”
– Legally speaking, will it be a normal Christmas?
Not at all. The tiered restrictions largely still do apply.
For example, pubs and restaurants in Tier 3 areas will not be open for business as usual over Christmas.
– What do the experts make of it all?
Two top medical journals have called for the Government to call off its “rash” decision.
In a rare joint editorial, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal said the Government “is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.
They added that the Government had been too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn, and restrictions were needed over Christmas ahead of a “likely third wave”.
Chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty said the modelling was clear that any relaxation in the restrictions will lead to a higher death toll.
“Any kind of period where people come together in groups that otherwise wouldn’t meet leads to an increase in risks and that will lead to an increase in hospitalisations and deaths,” he said.
But Prof Whitty said reducing the time spent with people, and the number of households that mix, will have an “important effect” on reducing transmission and will “reduce the risk significantly further than if we didn’t do those”.