Boris Johnson has urged people to keep Christmas shorter and smaller and to think hard before meeting friends and family. But his government, along with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, drew back from cancelling a planned easing of restrictions for the days around Christmas.
For five days from next Wednesday, up to three households will be able to combine for celebrations and extra trains and buses have been laid on to carry people across the country to spend time with friends and relations.
Medical experts have warned that the easing of restrictions could see a surge in coronavirus infections and Mr Johnson said the looser rules should be seen as the outer limit of what is permissible.
“A shorter Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas,” he told a press conference in Downing Street.
“When we say three households can meet on five days, I want to stress, these are maximums, not targets to aim for, and it’s always going to be safest to minimise the number of people you meet. If that means you’re visiting others, we’re asking you, for the five days beforehand, as early as Friday, to reduce the number of people you’re in contact with to the lowest possible.”
The prime minister said people should avoid travelling from places with a high level of infections to areas with a lower prevalence and to try not to stay overnight if possible. He said those with old or vulnerable relations should consider waiting a few months before seeing them and warned against crowding town and city centres for post-Christmas shopping.
“Remember, the vaccine is on the way and our aim is to inoculate everyone who’s extremely vulnerable, or elderly, by the early months of next year. If you have an elderly relative, you might want to delay seeing them until they’ve been vaccinated,” he said.
“Whatever your plans for Christmas, please think carefully about avoiding crowds in the Boxing Day sales, and no one should be gathering in large groups to see in the new year.”
Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon echoed Mr Johnson's reluctance to change the rules, saying it would not be fair or realistic to do so after so many people had already made plans. But she said her strong recommendation was for people to spend Christmas at home with their own household.
“If you do form a bubble you should not meet up for more than one day and not stay overnight, and keep it as small as possible – three is the maximum but two is better,” she said.
“Unequivocally, the safest way to spend Christmas this year is within your own household and within your own home.”
At prime minister's questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer called on the prime minister to outline the government's assessment of the impact of easing restrictions in terms of increased infections, hospitalisations and deaths. He said Mr Johnson's failure to learn from his past mistakes in handling the pandemic had left Britain with one of the highest death tolls and worst economic impacts in Europe.