Covid rules relaxed but Christmas should be small and short, says Boris Johnson

Consider delaying visits to elderly relatives until they have been vaccinated, adds PM

Boris Johnson has urged families to severely limit the length and scale of gatherings this Christmas, issuing a stark message to consider postponing reunions with elderly relatives until they receive a vaccine.

With less than a week to go before the planned relaxation of rules, the prime minister said laws permitting three households to mix would remain in place – but people should exercise extreme caution.

Despite Johnson’s earlier assurances of a UK-wide approach, the Welsh government announced it would legislate to reduce the number of households permitted to mix at Christmas from three to two. Scotland advised that a maximum of two households should gather and recommended limiting reunions to one day, if at all.

“A smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas, and shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas,” the prime minister told a Downing Street press conference, urging people to stay local and consider delaying visits to the elderly until they have been vaccinated.

Standing alongside him, Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, compared people taking full advantage of the festive rules to someone driving at 70mph in icy conditions – which would be legal but “not sensible” – and said the relaxation would almost certainly lead to more deaths.

The new, more cautious tone is reflected in updated official UK government guidance on how people can form Christmas cross-household bubbles, which says this should be done only “if you feel you absolutely need to”, adding: “For many, this will mean that it isn’t possible to celebrate Christmas in the way you normally would.”

The guidance goes on: “To protect you and your loved ones, think very carefully about the risks of forming a bubble … Everybody in a Christmas bubble is responsible for taking clear steps to prevent catching and spreading the virus.”

Later, the governments of the four UK nations released a joint statement stressing very similar points. It said that the safest thing was to celebrate Christmas just with your own household, “and we strongly recommend that this is what you do if at all possible”.

Johnson confirmed that three households would be allowed to mix for five days under the law but advised people to avoid long trips to see loved ones and to not stay overnight if possible.

“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.

“That’s been consistently what we’ve said will happen, not just scientists but political leaders, but what we’ve tried to do is to then find out what are the things you can do to reduce the risk.”

Johnson claimed that talks between the Westminster government and leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had brought accord, with rules announced in November unchanged. This allows a “bubble” of up to three, non-changeable households to mix from 23 to 27 December, with an extra day either side for travel to and from Northern Ireland.

But soon after the press conference, the Welsh government said it would make it the law that only two households – plus an additional single-person household – will be able to meet. Earlier, this had been presented as guidance.

Asked why the government was pressing ahead with the plans despite the known risks, Johnson said he had to make a judgment about “how people are going to behave anyway”.

Earlier in the day, Johnson’s spokesman had been asked whether there was modelling showing people would mix at Christmas regardless of the rules, and he was unable to point to any.

Johnson said: “I want to be clear, we don’t want to ban Christmas, to cancel it, I think that would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many people in this country.”

But the prime minister said the coronavirus situation was “alas worse and more challenging than we had hoped when we first set the rules”, concluding: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, and I’m afraid that this year I do mean little.”

Both Drakeford and the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that whatever the rules, people should restrict any mixing to two households, which Johnson did not specify.

The Scottish government later confirmed that its Christmas guidance was still being updated, but Sturgeon reiterated that the “strong advice” was “to stay at home with your own household” and that any interaction with other households should, as far as possible, be outdoors.

She added that Scots should avoid all travel between high prevalence areas and low prevalence areas: “In particular, that means avoiding travel to or from Scotland and tier 3 areas in England.”

At his press conference, Johnson said people should limit contact with non-household members from Friday, ahead of any Christmas visits, to the “lowest possible”, and if at all possible avoid overnight stays. Travel from a high-incidence area to a lower tier should also be avoided, as should any long journey, he said.

Additionally, he said, people should avoid seeing older or more vulnerable people until they have been vaccinated, and to avoid large crowds at Boxing Day sales, or on New Year’s Eve.

The new guidance follows days of warnings from MPs and scientists that the Christmas plan would inevitably see a surge of coronavirus infections as people gather indoors for extended periods.

On Wednesday, care home leaders warned that plans for Christmas mixing could be disastrous for the sector. “It is a recipe for a much, much worse scenario and care providers and workforces are going to face an unnecessarily greater challenge,” said Nadra Ahmed, executive chairman of the National Care Association, which represents small and medium-sized providers. “Indoor celebrations should be restricted. Transmission is highest indoors and three households will bring three lots of risk.”

On Tuesday, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal published a rare joint editorial saying the government could no longer claim to be protecting the NHS if it went ahead with the idea.

An advisory issued on Wednesday by the World Health Organization said that Europeans gathering for Christmas with friends or families should try to celebrate outside or wear masks indoors in a well-ventilated space.


Peter Walker, Steven Morris, Libby Brooks and Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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