Covid rules could be relaxed to give families five days of Christmas ‘freedom’

Families could be allowed to meet at least two other households to celebrate Christmas under plans being considered by the Government.

Ministers across the UK are in talks about easing restrictions over the festive period and giving families up to five days of "freedom".

The move would allow relatives to spend several days together for the festivities and mean families would not have to "choose between grandparents", sources said – but health officials warned that every day of freedom would cost five in tighter restrictions, raising the possibility of 25 further days of strict measures in December and possibly into January.

Under the measures being discussed, a limited number of households would be allowed to join together to form one "bubble" for a number of days. Churches are also likely to be allowed to hold Christmas Day services, with the Church of England saying "the message of light shining in the darkness" is needed more than ever.

Ministers held "four-nation" talks on Wednesday in a bid to agree common rules across the UK. A source close to the discussions said two options were being considered – extending the "rule of six" for Christmas or allowing several households to get together.

The video below shows Boris Johnson expressing hopes of "as normal a Christmas as possible" earlier this month:

The source said it was "more likely" that ministers would opt for the multi-household approach "for fear of people being left out", adding: "There’s very much a hope that there can be a UK approach because there’s a realisation that people have families in all four corners of the UK.

"It’s important to give people hope as well after what has been a very difficult year for everyone."

While the maximum number of households has not been settled on, it would be likely to be at least three in order to include both sets of grandparents where possible.

The well-placed insider said it was "very difficult" to conceive of a situation in which churches would not be able to hold services on Christmas Day, and a Church of England spokesman said: "In this Christmas like no other, at the end of a year of real hardship and loss, the message of Christmas – of light shining in the darkness – is needed more than ever.

"Whatever restrictions are in place to limit the spread of coronavirus and protect the vulnerable, Christmas services will have a crucial role to play in bringing comfort and hope to people and will be at the centre of our national life."

The spokesman said public worship should commence early next month.

On Wednesday, health officials suggested the Christmas plan could mean that the UK remains under strict restrictions for most of December after the national lockdown ends on December 2.  

With Christmas Eve falling on a Thursday and a Bank Holiday on Monday December 28, ministers are examining whether indoor gatherings could be permitted within a five-day period.

The Government’s medical adviser on Covid, Dr Susan Hopkins, said on Wednesday that advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) was that the price for easing measures would be heavy restrictions before and after Christmas.

She told a Downing Street briefing: "We are very keen that we have a Christmas as close to normal as possible."

If the rules were lifted for five days over Christmas, it could mean 25 days of stricter measures prior to and following the festivities, starting when the current lockdown ends.

Later, Dr Hopkins said: "For every day we release, we will need five days of tighter restrictions – so coming into Christmas we need to be very careful about the number of contacts we have to reduce transmission before Christmas and get our cases as low as possible." 

On Tuesday night, The Telegraph revealed that households across the country could be banned from mixing when the lockdown ends as part of Government efforts to "save Christmas".

Ministers are working on plans for a new tier system, and health officials have indicated that it is likely to be even tougher than the previous rules. That message was reinforced on Wednesday by health officials, who suggested tougher measures are also likely to be seen after Christmas.

Dr Hopkins said: "Once we have got past the Christmas period, if there has been some release and some socialisation we will all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again."

On Wednesday, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, said the four UK governments were working to agree common rules to lift "the very strict ban on household mixing" over the festive period.

She confirmed that plans to allow families to form "social bubbles" – which she dubbed "baubles" – for a number of days, allowing a limited number of households to mix, were being examined, with the governments attempting to reach common rules on giving people a "bit of leeway" over Christmas. However, she refused to speculate about how long this window would last.

Nicola Sturgeon suggested families could be able to mix together in Christmas 'baubles'

Credit: Getty Images Europe

Speaking ahead of a four-nations call with Michael Gove, Ms Sturgeon argued that it was better to "treat people like grown-ups" rather than attempt to impose Christmas restrictions "that are so tight that many people will try to get round" them so they can see loved ones.

She said the plan was to "say ok, here is perhaps a bit of leeway that as long as we all behave responsibly within, allows us to have some time with loved ones at Christmas".

"What the parameters are around that, what the numbers around that are, there are no decisions," the First Minister added. "But we do want to allow people – and it will be within limits, undoubtedly – to see people that right now they’re not able to see because of the very strict ban on household mixing."

She emphasised this must be done in a way that "minimises the risk of me standing at this podium in late January, reporting really horrible numbers of people who have died because of infections that we’ve picked up over the Christmas period".

Asked whether social bubbles could replace two-metre distancing, she said: "Yes, that’s possible, but that is not the same as saying that’s been decided, the idea of a bubble  – or ‘bauble’ is maybe a more appropriate way of articulating it at Christmas. These are the kind of things that we’re discussing and trying to come to a sensible view on."

Amid reports that a five-day exclusion from the normal rules may be applied, health officials and ministers said decisions had yet to be taken and would depend on the outcomes of the current lockdowns.

The talks between the four UK governments are made still more difficult by the fact that Hogmanay celebrations are as significant to many families in Scotland as Christmas. On Wednesday, a source close to the talks said: "The main discussions aren’t really focusing on New Year  –  although Scotland is understandably concerned about Hogmanay, it’s about Christmas only and how many households will be allowed to mix together.

"We are looking at the whole timescale leading up to and beyond Christmas, but there are concerns about relaxing the rules for New Year because of the amount people might be drinking."

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