Plans for all four UK nations to have the same rules at Christmas were thrown into total disarray today as politicians gave diverging views on what people can and cannot do.
In the face of a surge in coronavirus cases the leaders of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland met over the past two days, and decided against altering the laws.
Under terms agreed last month three households can meet in festive ‘bubbles’ without social distancing between December 23 and 28.
The laws to permit people to mix to an extent over Christmas stayed the same today – initially – but rifts in the advice across the four nations quickly emerged.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised people tonight to have a ‘merry little Christmas’, saying the three household bubble law were ‘maximums, not targets to aim for’ in England.
Non-essential shops and gyms will close earlier – on the evening of Christmas Eve – while all restaurants, pubs and bars will shut from 6pm on Christmas Day. From December 28, tighter rules will restrict household mixing, travel and holiday accommodation
He said the laws would remain the same but urged people to delay seeing elderly relatives not yet vaccinated, and that a ‘smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas’.
His words echoed those of Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, who advised people to meet in bubbles of just two households, on one day over Christmas.
But they were both recommendations, rather than the law.
However, Wales tonight threw the plans into greater confusion, with First Minister Mark Drakeford saying bubbles of two households – rather than three – would become law rather than a recommendation. It will also have full lockdown again from December 28 for at least three weeks.
In Northern Ireland, people were urged to take ‘all and every precaution’ when they come together, and further restrictions cannot be ruled out once relaxations end.
Confused? Here, we look at some of the key points for where you are this Christmas:
How many households can you have in your Christmas bubble?
ENGLAND – THREE (LAW)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said ‘we don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans’
The regulations allow for a five-day ‘Christmas window’ from December 23 to 27 when people can form exclusive bubbles of up to three households across the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said ‘we don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans’ but issued a warning for people to be ‘extremely cautious’ over their actions.
He said that individuals should ‘exercise a high degree of personal responsibility’, particularly when considering meeting elderly people who have not been vaccinated.
Mr Johnson added that the UK governments are ‘asking you to think hard and in detail about the days ahead and whether you can do more to protect yourself and others’.
He said the laws would be kept the same, but ‘we all want to send the same message’ that a ‘smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas’.
WALES – TWO (LAW)
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford today changed his advice for the public in Wales
Mr Johnson told the Commons that there was ‘unanimous agreement’ across the four nations ‘that we should proceed in principle with the existing regulations’.
But First Minister Mark Drakeford today changed his advice for the Welsh public. He said the new position is that ‘only two households should come together to form an exclusive Christmas bubble’ over the five-day period.
‘The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus,’ he said. ‘None of us wants to be ill this Christmas. And we don’t want to give coronavirus to our close family or friends.’
That was originally only advice, but tonight the Welsh Government changed its mind and said it would make a change to the law.
Wales will then go into full lockdown from December 28 to last an initial three weeks.
All non-essential retail will close on the evening of Christmas Eve and all hospitality from 6pm on Christmas Day, but restrictions for household mixing will only come in after the five days of relaxed measures at Christmas.
SCOTLAND – ONE (ADVICE) / THREE (LAW)
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her ‘strong recommendation’ is that people do not mix households over the period
Nicola Sturgeon said that her ‘strong recommendation’ is that people do not mix households over the period in what is ‘unequivocally the safest way to spend Christmas’.
The Scottish First Minister said that meetings should take place outdoors if possible but if it was ‘essential’ to meet inside then she advised people to meet for only one day and to not stay overnight.
Ms Sturgeon urged people against travelling between areas of high and low infection rates and asked people to consider ‘postponing’ Christmas.
‘The reality is that this Christmas simply can’t be normal. But we have every reason to hope that next year’s will be much more normal,’ she added.
The Scottish Government previously said people should keep the numbers within a bubble as low as possible and minimise the length of contact between different households in the bubble.
Scotland has also said that ‘different people in a household should not pick their own bubble’.
NORTHERN IRELAND – THREE (LAW)
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster said people needed to take ‘all and every precaution’ when they come together
First Minister Arlene Foster said people needed to take ‘all and every precaution’ when they come together at Christmas but could not rule out further restrictions in the days afterwards.
Health Minister Robin Swann is due to bring proposals for further Covid-19 restrictions to the Stormont executive later today but Mrs Foster said she did not expect a recommendation for new measures to be introduced before the festive break.
Mrs Foster said she noted the more stringent advice on household mixing from her counterpart in Wales but added: ‘I am not going to prejudge what the minister is going to bring to us but undoubtedly we will have something to say tomorrow and over the next few days.’
Can I travel between the nations, such as from England to Scotland?
Yes. You are allowed to travel between England’s tiers and the four nations of the UK to meet your Christmas bubble.
However Nicola Sturgeon has advised people against travelling between areas of high and low infection rates, as Mr Johnson did this evening.
This means someone travelling up to Scotland from London, a Tier Three area, would be discouraged from doing so, although they would not be breaking the law.
Will the lockdown in Wales cut short Christmas plans?
No. The lockdown will start on December 28, one day after the Christmas bubble period ends. But it is likely to affect post-Christmas shopping plans.
Should I follow the rules of the tier I travel to or the tier I’ve come from when forming my Christmas bubble?
In England, if travelling to join your bubble you should follow the tier rules of your destination.
In Scotland, you must stay with your bubble where they are hosting you and you should follow the travel advice for the level you are in.
For example, people being hosted in a level 3 area cannot go on an outing to a level 2 area.
Can I travel to Tier 3 areas?
Yes, there is nothing in the law stopping this. However, Boris Johnson has asked people to avoid travelling from a high prevalence area to a low prevalence area.
What is a Christmas bubble and when can I join one?
People across the UK will be allowed to form an exclusive Christmas bubble made up of people from no more than three households between December 23 and 27.
This law applies across the whole of the UK. Christmas bubbles can only meet in private homes and gardens, places of worship and public outdoor spaces.
Should I now try to cut down my Christmas bubble?
Yes. Although the law states you can have three households in your bubble, Boris Johnson has advised people to cut the number of people and days of socialising if posssible.
Can I form a Christmas bubble if I am clinically extremely vulnerable?
Yes, but people are warned this involves greater risks.
If someone decides to join a bubble they should take extra precautions, while others within the group should be extra vigilant in the days before getting together.
Can I visit elderly relatives?
People have been advised to avoid visiting elderly relatives unless they have had their coronavirus vaccine. But there is nothing in law stating this.
Can I be in more than one Christmas bubble?
No. Christmas bubbles will be fixed for the period they are permitted. You are also not allowed to change your Christmas bubble once it is formed.
Family in Wales scrap plans for Christmas after seeing hospital staff ‘on their knees’
Geoff Leyshon, 74, from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, said his entire family made a decision a week ago to scrap their plans after seeing staff at nearby Prince Charles Hospital ‘on their knees’.
Geoff Leyshon, 74, from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, said his entire family made a decision a week ago to scrap their plans
He said: ‘To us, to all of them and me, we thought it was just common sense. We were told that we can do it… but we felt, no we can’t!
‘I appreciate the difficulty, the mental stress, all that goes with it.’
Mr Leyshon added that it would take ‘a lot of courage’ for politicians to change their mind this close to Christmas.
Is there a limit to how many people can be in a Christmas bubble?
Cabinet Office guidance only stipulates that the bubble should not include people from more than three households.
However, it highlights that the more people someone sees, the more likely they are to catch or spread Covid-19, and asks the public to be mindful of risks before agreeing to form a bubble.
Do you have to self-isolate before forming a bubble?
Not by law, but Boris Johnson said today that people were being asked to ‘reduce the number of people you are in contact with to the lowest possible number’ in the five days before Christmas.
Will we have to social distance within Christmas bubbles?
Social distancing will not be necessary in bubbles, but people will be advised to exercise restraint and judgment if they plan to mix with vulnerable friends or family.
It means friends and family will have the chance to hug for the first time in months.
What happens if I’m self-isolating?
If you have Covid symptoms or are required to self-isolate then you must not join a Christmas bubble.
If someone in a Christmas bubble tests positive for coronavirus or develops symptoms between December 23 and 27, or up to 48 hours after the bubble last met, then all bubble members must self-isolate.
Can I be in a different Christmas bubble from people I normally live with?
Cabinet Office guidance says you can choose to form a different Christmas bubble from the people you live with normally.
To prevent virus transmission within your normal household and between bubbles, people should try to stay with another member of their Christmas bubble between December 23 and 27 where possible.
Extra precautions such as cleaning surfaces and door handles and letting in fresh air after someone has visited your household are also advised.
Can I still meet people outside of my Christmas bubble?
You will be able to meet people not in your Christmas bubble outside your home according to the rules in the tier you are staying in.
The tier system of restrictions applies to England, with rules in other parts of the UK varying.
Can I stay overnight with my Christmas bubble?
Yes, by law. If someone is in your Christmas bubble, you can visit each other’s homes and stay overnight, including in private rented accommodation.
However, Boris Johnson has advised people against staying overnight to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus between each other.
When am I allowed to travel to and from my Christmas bubble?
You should only travel to meet your bubble and return home between December 23 and 27.
‘For us it’s just too much of a risk’, says daughter who feared parents would worry
Katherine Carter, 37, from Southampton, has seen her own plans change as recently as yesterday due to her parents’ concerns.
She described the Government’s relaxation of restrictions as a ‘nice thought’ before adding ‘for us it’s just too much of a risk’.
Katherine Carter, 37, from Southampton, has seen her own plans change as recently as yesterday due to her parents’ concerns
She continued: ‘I was concerned that they (parents) would be worried, and wanted to know what they were thinking.
‘As soon as I mentioned it they confirmed they were worried and thought it best to change plans, which I agreed sounded sensible.
‘We’re happy to have a quiet Christmas if it helps to keep them safe and less stressed.’
For those heading to or from Northern Ireland, they may travel on December 22 and 28 December, but should only meet their Christmas bubble between December 23 and 27.
Travel outside these periods is only allowed in exceptional circumstances, for example if your are required to self-isolate.
People are advised to avoid unnecessary stops on their journey and not to share a car with people not in their household.
If crossing borders, travellers should read the local coronavirus guidance as different rules may apply.
Does my support bubble count as one household still?
According to the Cabinet Office, existing support bubbles will count as one household contributing to the three household Christmas bubble limit.
A support bubble in England is defined as a support network between a single adult household, or a one adult household with one or more people aged under 18 on June 12, and one other household of any size.
Rules on household bubbles are different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with full Christmas guidance still pending from those nations.
Can childcare bubbles continue?
In England, a childcare bubble is where one household links with one other household to provide informal childcare to children aged 13 or under.
Between December 23 and 27 you can continue to use a childcare bubble but ‘only if reasonably necessary’ and ‘where there are no reasonable alternatives’, Cabinet Office guidance states.
If meeting socially during this period, the two households should form a Christmas bubble, with one further household permitted to join the grouping.
Again, guidance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may differ.
What happens to children whose parents are separated?
Children who are aged under 18 can be part of both their parents’ Christmas bubbles if the adults do not live together and separate groupings are formed.
Nobody else is allowed to be in two bubbles.
Can care home residents join Christmas bubbles?
In England, visits outside of care homes should only be considered for residents ‘of working age’.
A care home resident that is allowed to leave, subject to a home’s agreement and individual risk assessments, may form a bubble with one other household only and should not form a three-household Christmas bubble at any point.
If a care home resident does join a household for Christmas they should maintain social distance and take steps to minimise risks.
Can students returning from university join Christmas bubbles?
Students heading home for the holidays will be considered part of the household they return to.
Growing concerns over health of mother, 71, prompt son to cancel
Marlene Kayley, 71
Marlene Kayley, 71, from Lancashire, had planned to see her son but his growing concerns over his mother’s health prompted him to cancel.
‘At first they thought they would form a bubble of three families,’ said Mrs Kayley of her son and his fiance.
‘The parents of my son’s fiance (in their 60s) said they didn’t want to risk socialising over Christmas so wouldn’t see them.
‘My son then expressed his concern that if he was asymptomatic he’d never live with himself if he infected me and I died.’
The decision was made just two weeks ago – and Mrs Kayley said she understood her son’s choice but remained disappointed.
‘After the year we’ve had, starting with not being able to see him on Mother’s Day… I can’t say I’ve got used to any of the upset caused by all the restrictions.
‘Yes I’m disappointed and yes I understand my son’s fears.’
Can my bubble have Christmas dinner together at the pub?
No. Under the rules Christmas bubbles cannot meet up at indoor settings such as pubs, hotels, retail businesses, theatres or restaurants.
In England, rules on who you can and cannot meet will still depend on which tier of restrictions a venue is in.
Can I stay in a hotel during Christmas?
In England, you can stay in a hotel during the Christmas period, including in a tier three area, but only on your own or with members of your household.
When do I have to decide my bubble by?
The Government have advised people to decide on their bubble by this Friday. However, this is not enshrined in law – it will not be illegal to change it.
Will we face tougher restrictions in January to make up for this?
We do not yet know. It has been speculated that a further circuit-breaker might be needed in January or February if transmission rates rise during Christmas.
The Prime Minister has urged families to still be ‘jolly careful’, warning against ‘a big blowout Christmas’ that could risk another lockdown in January.
Will the tiered restrictions still apply over the Christmas bubble period?
Yes. The tiered restrictions largely still do apply. For example, pubs and restaurants in Tier 3 areas will not be open for business as usual over Christmas.
What do the experts make of it all?
Two top medical journals have called for the Government to call off its ‘rash’ decision.
In a rare joint editorial, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal said the Government ‘is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives’.
They added that the Government had been too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn, and restrictions were needed over Christmas ahead of a ‘likely third wave’.
Can I go to the Boxing Day sales and celebrate New Year?
Boris Johnson has urged people to avoid crowds in the Boxing Day sales, adding that ‘no one should be gathering in large groups to see in the New Year’.
When will the situation have improved?
Boris Johnson said: ‘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.’