Covid Christmas chaos: Boris Johnson says rules unchanged but nations split

Chaos and uncertainty surrounds the UK's Covid Christmas plans, with Boris Johnson announcing the rules remain unchanged across the country, Wales' first minister announcing only two households can meet and Nicola Sturgeon urging people to meet loved ones if it is "essential".

Northern Ireland's leaders have not made an updated statement on Christmas plans.

Between December 23 and 27, people in England and Scotland can form a "bubble" from December 23 to 27, while people travelling to and from Northern Ireland will be allowed an extra day either side of these dates.

Yet while the prime minister was speaking in the Commons telling MPs there was “unanimous agreement” across the four nations “that we should proceed in principle with the existing regulations”, Wales' first minister announced that only two rather than three households can meet together.

However, it is thought this is a change in advice rather than in the law.

Mark Drakeford went on to say that all non-essential retail and gyms would close at the end of trading on Christmas Eve with hospitality having to close from 6pm on Christmas Day, with the lockdown lasting for three weeks.

The confusion came after two days of talks between the leaders of the devolved nations and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.

Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports on the Christmas confusion

While the rules have not changed in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recommended that those people forming a Christmas bubble should only meet up on one day and not stay overnight “unless it is unavoidable”.

She said: “Firstly and unequivocally the safest way to spend Christmas this year for you and for those you love is to stay within your own household and your own home.

“My strong recommendation is this is what you should do if at all possible.”

She said any mixing with other households should take place outside, if possible, but if it is “essential” to meet indoors, people should limit the time of that meeting and the numbers involved as much as possible.

Speaking at the same time, Mr Johnson urged people to “exercise extreme caution” and avoid seeing elderly relatives at Christmas, while also claiming unanimity across the four nations.

At PMQs, Mr Johnson said it is right to “stress the importance of people taking care this Christmas”, particularly due to the risk of asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus.

He told MPs: “We should exercise extreme caution in the way we celebrate Christmas.”

Mr Johnson told MPs there was “unanimous agreement” across the four nations “that we should proceed in principle with the existing regulations”.

“We don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans,” he said.

“But we do think it’s absolutely vital that people should – at this very, very tricky time – exercise a high degree of personal responsibility, especially when they come into contact with elderly people, and avoid contact with elderly people wherever possible.”

Downing Street said the prime minister’s claim of a unanimous approach was because they had agreed not to change the regulations, although it was up to the individual nations to set out their own guidance.

Shoppers at the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham city centre. Credit: Jacob King/PA

In Northern Ireland, First Minister Arlene Foster said the public must take “all and every precaution” at Christmas and proposals for further restrictions will be brought forward on Thursday.

The relaxed rules over Christmas come despite warnings from medical experts about the dangers.

For only the second time in 100 years, leading medical publications the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal joined forces to call for Christmas plans to be scrapped in order to bring down Covid-19 numbers ahead of a "likely third wave".

In a joint plea they said the government should "reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down".

Pressure had been mounting for the government to scrap its plan for Christmas amid rising coronavirus cases around the country, with a new, fast-spreading strain having been identified.

The new variant could be contributing to significant rises in virus prevalence in London, parts of Essex and parts of Hertfordshire, which are being placed into Tier 3 of restrictions overnight.