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Government backs ‘limited’ UK-wide Christmas household mixing after talks with devolved nations

Ashley Cowburn
·5-min read

Watch: Hopes raised families will be able to meet over Christmas as UK nations back plan

Families will be allowed to get together with a small number of friends and relatives over Christmas for a limited number of days, the government has suggested.

After talks with devolved administrations, the Cabinet Office said ministers endorsed a shared objective of introducing a temporary amnesty from social mixing restrictions to allow “some limited additional household bubbling” over the festive period.

No 10 is yet to confirm how many days the reprieve will apply for, but reports have suggested the measure could last between 22-28 December.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, earlier stressed it will not be a “normal” Christmas, indicating that the government will continue to request people follow social distancing rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

In a statement published on Sunday, the Cabinet Office and the devolved administrations also emphasised that the public will be advised to remain “cautious” and wherever possible should avoid travelling to minimise social contact.

It comes after Boris Johnson met virtually with the cabinet on Sunday to sign off the “Covid winter plan”, which will see a return to a tougher version of regional tiered measures when England’s lockdown ends on 2 December.

<p>The measures could last between 22-28 December</p> (Reuters)

The measures could last between 22-28 December

(Reuters)

Following criticism from government scientists on the effectiveness of the lower tiers, it is expected that more areas are likely to be placed into the higher levels of restrictions, suggesting that many regions could face bans on household mixing until the Christmas period.

The prime minister will address parliament on Monday with the proposals and earlier Mr Sunak hinted the government will also scrap the 10pm curfew on bars and restaurants.

The curfew measure had faced fierce criticism from dozens of Conservative MPs and Sir Keir Starmer, who urged the government to look again at the policy – introduced in September alongside the regional tiers – after scenes of people crowding onto streets and public transport at closing time circulated on social media.

There were reports hospitality businesses in tier 3 areas will only be allowed to offer takeaway under the tougher new system, while in tier 2 pubs will only be allowed to serve drinkers who order a “substantial” meal.

But it is understood Mr Johnson will tell MPs that non-essential shops can open in all three tiers after the current restrictions expire on 2 December, in a boost for retailers during the festive period.

On the government’s Christmas plans, the Cabinet Office added: “Welcoming the good progress made by all administrations over the past few days to design a single set of arrangements that can apply across the UK, ministers reiterated the importance of allowing families and friends to meet in a careful and limited way, while recognising that this will not be a normal festive period and the risks of transmission remain very real.

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“In respect of Northern Ireland, ministers also recognised that people will want to see family and friends across the island of Ireland, and this is the subject of discussions with the Irish government.

“Work is continuing to finalise the arrangements, including relating to travel. The UK government, Scottish government, Welsh government and Northern Ireland executive hope to conclude this work this week, subject to agreement by each administration.”

Last week Public Health England, however, warned that for every day restrictions are eased over the festive period, five days of more stringent measures will be required to ensure infections of Covid-19 are kept under control.

And Professor Calum Semple, who is a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday there would be a “price” for relaxing restrictions, but added: “In reality, we can’t ban Christmas and to do so would just lead to breaches and what are you going to do about that?”

His 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.

The prime minister also faces the significant prospect of a Conservative rebellion over his plans to return to regional restrictions, as the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), led by the former chief whip Mark Harper and ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker, resist the measures.

On Sunday the CRG warned that it "cannot support" a tiered approach unless the government produces evidence to show measures "will save more lives than they cost".

The warning against the measures inflicting "huge health and economic costs" came in a letter to the prime minister, which the group said had been signed by 70 Conservative MPs and 14 peers, although the group's leaders were the only signatories identified.

However, if Labour decides to support the government, or even abstain on the measures next week, the prime minister’s proposals will easily pass the Commons.

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 Sage body expected to publish papers on Monday reiterating that the previous tiers were not strong enough.

But the CRG letter said: "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.”

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