Lifting restrictions for Christmas: What will change from today?

Covid-19 cases are rising but travel and household visits rules will be relaxed for almost three weeks

What is happening on Friday?

Under the planned third phase of the reopening, restrictions on household visits and travel between counties are to be eased for a period of three weeks, to allow family and friends to celebrate Christmas together.

This phase will begin on December 18th with households allowed to mix with up to two other households. Previously, people were only allowed to visit those in their own household bubble.

Hospital Report

People will be allowed to travel outside their county for almost three weeks until January 6th.

Despite rising Covid-19 numbers, people in Northern Ireland will be able to travel anywhere in the UK from December 22nd to 28th, and "bubble" with up to three other households from December 23rd to 27th.

What is the purpose of lifting the restrictions?

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he hoped people could have a “meaningful Christmas” and visit members of their family they might not have seen for the last year.

Unfortunately, the lifting of restrictions is happening at a time when numbers have started to climb again.

A total of 431 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were notified on Tuesday and the five day, seven day and 14 day average are all increasing. On Thursday there were 484 new Covid-19 cases reported. The situation in Northern Ireland is even worse with hospitals over capacity at present.

There are fears that Covid-19 numbers will spike as a result of Christmas gatherings. Widespread travel and gatherings around Thanksgiving have been blamed for a vicious spike in Covid-19 cases in the United States where deaths were an average of more than 3,000 a day last week.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is unenthusiastic about the lifting of restrictions and have repeatedly called for people to limit their movements.

"I cannot stress enough how important it is to limit your interactions now. The consequences of not doing so will be exponential growth in January, a substantial increase in hospitalisations and risk to life," the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said on Thursday evening.

Nphet had advocated for an opening of restaurants and gastropubs or a relaxation in household visits, but not both as has turned out.

Epidemiologist Dr Gabriel Scally went further and said the Irish and UK governments should ask families to postpone Christmas family gatherings to the summer solstice next June.

He said two extra bank holidays should be offered in June 2021 as an incentive for people to keep their distance from their family over the coming holiday season. By then the vaccine roll out would have helped enormously.

When will the lifting of restrictions end?

They are due to end on January 6th, but that date is already proving to be problematic.

The trajectory of the disease indicates that the Government might have to reimpose bans on household visits.

An emergency cabinet meeting is scheduled for December 29th if the numbers continue to go in the wrong direction.

The Government has said a fresh lockdown cannot be ruled out in January.

What is Nphet saying?

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Thursday evening that Nphet had recommended that the Government shorten the period of relaxed Covid-19 restrictions to the end of the year from January 6th and that restrictions be imposed on the hospitality sector and that visits between households be reduced from three to two. Mr Martin said that the Government would take the recommendation “very seriously” and would make a decision when it meets on Tuesday.

How should people protect themselves and others if they are meeting with members of their family?

The Government has published a long list of dos and don’ts for the Christmas period. They have asked people to avoid hugs, kisses and handshakes as people arrive, not to share crockery and glassware, and give as much space at the dinner table as possible.

People should a wear a mask when cooking and serving food.

There have been several suggestions made from wearing a mask while you are cooking the Christmas dinner to leaving the doors open while you are having your dinner.

The Government has recommended that you continue to wear a mask when mixing with vulnerable people and those with underlying conditions. If indoors, make sure where possible that the space is well ventilated.