People will be left to make their own judgments on whether Christmas celebrations are worth the risk, with warnings to avoid elderly relatives and a recommendation to isolate in the run-up to the festive period.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would be “inhuman” to ban Christmas entirely and confirmed the festive bubble policy allowing households to mix would remain in place despite warnings it will lead to more deaths.
But he said people should “think hard” about what they do and a “smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas”.
The original UK-wide plans would have seen three households allowed to form a festive bubble between December 23 and 27.
But despite efforts to maintain a four-nations approach, Wales will legislate to restrict mixing to two households and all parts of the UK are issuing tougher guidance.
At a Downing Street press conference the Prime Minister:
– Stressed that the three households, five days provisions were “maximums, not a target to aim for”;
– Suggested that from Friday people mixing with others over Christmas should effectively isolate by reducing their contacts to the “lowest possible”;
– Said people should not travel from a high-prevalence to a low-prevalence area;
– Urged people to avoid staying away from home overnight where possible;
– Suggested people should avoid seeing elderly relatives until they have been vaccinated.
The Government said a further 612 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, bringing the UK total to 65,520.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have now been 81,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
The Government said that, as of 9am on Wednesday, there had been a further 25,161 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
It brings the total number of cases in the UK to 1,913,277.
The Prime Minister admitted the coronavirus situation had deteriorated since the festive bubble rules were set by the four nations of the UK as the Government issued updated guidance for what has been dubbed the “Christmas window”.
Mr Johnson said: “While it would not be right, we think, to criminalise people who have made plans and simply want to spend time with their loved ones, we’re collectively – across the UK governments at every level – asking you to think hard, and in detail about the days ahead.”
He said the laws were remaining the same but “a smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas and a shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas”.
He added: “Have yourselves a merry little Christmas – and I’m afraid this year I do mean little.
“But with the vaccine, and all the other measures that we are taking, we do know that things will be better in this country by Easter.”
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said modelling indicated the looser restrictions would lead to more deaths.
“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.
He suggested it was not worth the risk of meeting the “most vulnerable” until they have been vaccinated.
“We are tantalisingly close to the stage where anybody who gets into trouble as a result of actions this Christmas would have been protected in the very near future,” he said.
“It is very important people think about that when they make decisions over the next few weeks.”
Prof Whitty said his advice for Christmas was: “Keep it small, keep it short, keep it local and think of the most vulnerable people.”
The new guidance on Christmas came after talks involving the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford set out his decision to deviate from the previously agreed approach.
He said: “Here in Wales, the position is that only two households should come together to form an exclusive Christmas bubble during the five-day period.
“The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus.”
The price of the relaxed restrictions will be a tougher lockdown in Wales from December 28.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The safest way to spend Christmas this year for you and for those you love is to stay within your own household and your own home.
“My strong recommendation is this is what you should do if at all possible.”
In Northern Ireland, First Minister Arlene Foster said the public must take “all and every precaution” at Christmas and proposals for further restrictions will be brought forward on Thursday.
Ministers hope that the rollout of a vaccine and improved testing availability will help life return to something closer to normal in the spring.
The first vaccination figures showed almost 138,000 people in the UK have received the jab so far.
The Government has been under intense pressure to scale down Christmas plans because of fears about a surge in cases, particularly given the experience in the US since Thanksgiving in November.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the easing was a “bad idea” and that people needed to be “incredibly cautious”.
“I think, to avoid the preventable deaths that we’re going to have in January as a result of this, we shouldn’t be doing it, but if we do do it then I think we need to do it in the most modest way possible,” she told BBC Breakfast.
The focus on Christmas arrangements came as around 10.8 million more people began living under England’s toughest restrictions as London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire moved into Tier 3.
With 61% of England’s population now living under the strictest measures, ministers are due to formally review which tiers are appropriate for each area.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock will set out the new allocations on Thursday.