It is too early to set out Covid rules for Christmas, the government has said, after reports that families may be able to mix for five days over the holidays.
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Business Secretary Alok Sharma said he wanted his mum and dad and family around the Christmas table but it was too early for “conclusions” on rules.
He said people needed to keep bearing down on the infection and “do our bit”.
All four UK nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are trying to work out a common approach to Christmas to enable families spread across the UK to get together.
Asked when a decision on Christmas restrictions would be made, Mr Sharma told BBC Breakfast: “We just have to see where we get to.”
“I certainly would like to have as normal a Christmas as possible,” he said, but warned it may not be “as normal” as previous years.
It comes after Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March, suggested extending support bubbles to up to four households to allow families to celebrate Christmas together.
“You could think of allowing three or four households to bubble together for a week but not contact anybody else, which would give more opportunity to see loved ones but not a free-for-all,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Tuesday.
“And that, modelling would suggest, increases risk somewhat but in a controllable way.”
This year, Christmas Eve falls on Thursday and there is a bank holiday on the following Monday, giving most workers at least a four-day break.
Prof Ferguson also warned that reopening pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas would be likely to lead to rising infection levels.
“The big question in practical terms is can we reopen hospitality venues – pubs and restaurants – in the run-up to Christmas and still avoid infection levels increasing?” he said.
“I suspect we can’t, but the decision may be made to do so anyhow on the basis that any increase will be slow and may be able to be counteracted later.”
‘Respite from the hard slog’
What to do about Christmas is delicately poised.
On the one hand, allowing mixing over the festive period will undoubtedly lead to an increase in infections.
What is more, there are concerns the impact of lockdown will be more limited than hoped. We are yet to see infections rates start falling – although it is still early days – so there will be no final decision on Christmas yet.
But stamping down on the virus is, of course, not the be all and end all.
Providing an opportunity to meet will provide a much-needed respite from the hard slog of the pandemic.
But there is also a widespread recognition that even if the government bans mixing at Christmas significant numbers of people may well ignore it.
The fear is that then starts to normalise breaking the restrictions and will make compliance worse over the rest of winter.
The expectation is that there will be some limited relaxation – in the hope that the psychological boost it will give the public and the longer-term goodwill it will engender will outweigh any cost in terms of virus spread.
England is expected to come out of its second national lockdown on 2 December. Mr Sharma said England would then return to the tier system of localised restrictions, with household mixing banned indoors in the top two tiers.
Doctors have said lifting lockdown must be handled better this time round to avoid a surge in Covid that could overwhelm the NHS.
There have been calls for a single approach from the devolved administrations in the UK about Christmas – so families who live in different nations can deal with a single set of rules.
Welsh ministers have said it could be weeks before an announcement on Covid rules for Christmas is made, and warned this year’s festive period would “not be like normal”.
Ministers in Northern Ireland said they would do all they could to “protect” as much of Christmas as possible.
And Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the plan in Scotland was to take “early action now” to bring down the spread of coronavirus so people can be with families over Christmas and the NHS can deal with the normal pressures of January and February.
On Tuesday, the government said a further 598 people had died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the total number of deaths in the UK 52,745. And there were 20,051 more lab-confirmed cases.
In other developments:
- A public spending watchdog found that firms recommended by MPs, peers and ministers’ offices were given priority when the government awarded £18bn worth of Covid-19 contracts
- Baroness Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, is self-isolating after receiving a notification from the NHS mobile app