Limited household mixing to be permitted across UK for Christmas
A relaxation of coronavirus restrictions “for a small number of days” over Christmas will allow a limited level of mixing between households across the UK, the Westminster Government has said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to set out the basis of plans for the festive period on Monday, as well as detailing a new tougher three-tier system for England when its national lockdown ends on December 2.
But Mr Johnson will be unable to say how many households will be allowed to mix over Christmas and for how many days restrictions will be relaxed for until a later date, the PA news agency understands.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove met with leaders of the devolved administrations over the weekend when they “endorsed a shared objective of facilitating some limited additional household bubbling for a small number of days”.
But the public will be “advised to remain cautious” and told that “wherever possible people should avoid travelling and minimise social contact”, a statement from his department said.
The Cabinet Office said talks are continuing to finalise the agreement, including over travel arrangements, but that it is hoped the conclusion will come “this week”, while the Scottish Government said “no agreement has been reached”.
Mr Johnson will still detail the strengthened tiered system in a statement to the House of Commons, but the full details of the festive relaxation are not expected until after the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland agree the plans with their own cabinets.
He is facing the threat of a backbench revolt to his “winter Covid plan” for England after dozens of Conservative MPs warned they could not back further restrictions without extensive evidence.
Downing Street said more areas are expected to enter higher tiers next month while those tiers will be strengthened to safeguard the gains made during the four-week lockdown.
The Prime Minister was warned in a letter by the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), said by a source close to the group to be signed by 70 Tory MPs, that he will have to provide a cost-benefit analysis to show the restrictions “will save more lives than they cost”.
But Chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested providing the evidence they require will be a tall order, paving the way for a significant challenge to get Parliament’s approval for the restrictions when MPs get a vote in the days before the restrictions are to come into force.
“It’s very hard to be precise in estimating the particular impact of a one-week restriction,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
But in one move likely to be welcomed by Conservative rebels, Mr Sunak confirmed to The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC that plans to change the curfew period for pubs and restaurants in England is “definitely something we’re looking at”.
The Prime Minister is understood to be preparing to unveil a plan so that while last orders must be called at 10pm, people will get an extra hour to finish their food and drinks, with opening hours to be extended until 11pm.
Downing Street will hope an easing at Christmas, potential vaccines on the horizon and new scientific evidence will lessen the scale of a rebellion, with the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) expected to publish papers on Monday saying the previous tiers were not strong enough.
But the CRG warned against any post-Christmas increase in restrictions to counteract the relaxation in the letter signed by the group’s leaders, former Brexit minister Steve Baker and ex-chief whip Mark Harper.
“We cannot live under such a series of damaging lockdowns and apparently arbitrary restrictions and expect our constituents to be grateful for being let out to enjoy the festive season only to have strict restrictions imposed on them afterwards that cause them health problems and destroy their livelihood,” they wrote.
When the Commons voted on the current lockdown earlier this month, 32 Conservatives rebelled to oppose the measures and 17 more, including former prime minister Theresa May, abstained.
But Labour has so far been supportive of the need for restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19 and a full-scale Commons defeat on the plan is unlikely.
The plans emerged as the Government said a further 739 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Coivd-19 as of the weekend, bringing the UK total to 55,024.
Mr Johnson was to meet with his Cabinet to get their approval for the plans on Sunday, while ministers will set out on Thursday what tier each area will be placed in to when the lockdown ends.
Mr Gove, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, Wales’s Mark Drakeford and Northern Ireland’s Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill “reiterated the importance of allowing families and friends to meet in a careful and limited way” in a meeting on Saturday.
They also recognised it “will not be a normal festive period” while “the risks of transmission remain very real”, according to the Cabinet Office statement.
Discussions are expected to continue with the Irish Government so friends and family can mix across the island of Ireland around Christmas.
Sage member Professor Calum Semple told Ridge “in reality we can’t ban Christmas” because it would “simply lead to breaches”.
He said any change to the 10pm curfew would be better informed by an understanding of human behaviour to prevent everyone filling the streets at closing time.
Sage colleague Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said it is “perfectly reasonable” to return to a tiered approach but warned a national easing over Christmas will have costs.
“There will be a price to pay for it, obviously, you relax restrictions and infection rates go up, you constrain and infection rates will come down as they are going down at the moment,” he told Times Radio.