The Christmas plans of millions of Britons are hanging in the balance after UK government ministers failed to reach agreement with devolved administrations on whether to go ahead with the expected five-day amnesty from Covid restrictions.
A UK government source said there were “no plans” to tighten restrictions in England, but Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove is thought to have met resistance from other parts of the UK where there is concern that the virus will be spread by people crossing borders to be with loved ones.
Boris Johnson is coming under intense pressure to reverse the offer to allow up to three households to celebrate together, as a growing chorus of scientists warn that it will lead to an upsurge of illness and deaths in the following weeks.
The Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association said the government must ditch what it called a “kamikaze Christmas Covid plan”.
Downing Street has confirmed the plan is “under review”. But ministers are thought to be pushing to beef up messaging and guidance on ways of meeting more safely, rather than cutting back the Christmas break or the size of permitted gatherings.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon signalled she may be ready to break away from the UK-wide approach, telling MSPs that if agreement cannot be reached in four-nation talks Edinburgh “will consider what we think is appropriate”.
But her Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford was more reluctant to ask people to give up their festive break, describing the current plans as a “hard-won agreement” which he will “not lightly put it aside”.
A UK government source described the four-nation call as “constructive” and said Mr Gove will resume discussions on Wednesday.
“There are no plans to change the regulations in England,” said the source, adding: “We’re keen to maintain a UK wide approach and will have further discussions with devolved administrations tomorrow morning.”
Mr Johnson can expect demands for action at prime minister’s questions in the Commons on Wednesday from Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, who has called for a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee to consider the case for tighter controls.
Pressure on the prime minister was heightened by a rare joint article from the editors of the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal branding the Christmas plans “rash” and warning that the Government “is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.
They were backed by Manchester University respiratory medicine professor Ashley Woodcock, who warned: “Christmas is uniquely designed to mix young and old. This will bring severe disease and death to the elderly – much greater than meeting within peer groups.
“This would be an avoidable catastrophe, just in time for New Year. Instead the government should designate a day in 2021, after the vulnerable population in the UK have been vaccinated, to celebrate…irrespective of religious group.”
And Prof John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Sage scientific advisory panel, suggested “it might be best to postpone meeting up with vulnerable relatives” rather than see them over Christmas.
But University of East Anglia professor of medicine Paul Hunter said: “Personally, I think it’s a risk that we can tolerate ultimately, for the benefits for many people of being able to spend time with their loved ones.”
Millions of families have ordered turkeys and made travel plans in anticipation of scaled-back Christmas celebrations since Mr Johnson announced the relaxed festive rules on 24 November, at a time when daily coronavirus cases across the UK stood at 11,299.
Latest figures showed that figure had reached 18,450 by Tuesday, with 506 deaths reported as infections spiked up sharply in the southeast and London.
The capital goes into tier 3 lockdown restrictions on Wednesday along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, as ministers carry out the first review of the regionalised system introduced in England on 2 December. Areas in the northwest, Tees Valley and Yorkshire where the crucial rate of reproduction – known as R – has fallen in recent weeks will be hoping to be moved down from tier 3 to 2, allowing pubs and restaurants to reopen for people eating substantial meals.
A YouGov survey found that many Britons are ready to give up their festive plans. Of 3,856 adults questioned on Tuesday, some 57 per cent said the plans to relax social distancing should be dropped, against just 31 per cent who said the easing should go ahead as planned.
Senior Conservative backbencher Tobias Ellwood said: “The guidance was drawn up in November, when the outlook was very different and far more positive than it is now. We had the capacity at that point perhaps to sustain any R-rating increase to manageable levels.
“Much as we wanted a break, we must not forget that this is the biggest crisis we have faced since the war. It’s a dangerous and enduring. It requires tough decision making and the courage to adapt to what’s best for Britain for the long term, even if that’s unpopular.”
And former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said ministers should listen “very carefully” to calls for a rethink, warning that for the NHS to go into the “nightmare” winter period with beds filled by Covid patients would be “a very, very dangerous and precarious situation”.
Ms Sturgeon raised the prospect of splitting with the other nations’ approach, telling the Scottish Parliament there was “a case for us looking at whether we tighten the flexibilities that were given any further both in terms of duration and numbers of people meeting”.
In Wales, Mr Drakeford told the Senedd that “the choice is a grim one, isn’t it?” and highlighted “heart-rending pleas” he has received from people to not reverse the existing plan.
“I think the choice is an incredibly difficult one,” he added.
Sir Keir wrote to the prime minister offering Labour’s support for a review to tighten restrictions.
The Labour leader accused ministers of having “lost control of infections” and warned that “the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse since the decision about Christmas was taken”.
“If you conclude with Government scientists that we need to take tougher action to keep people safe over Christmas, then you will have my support,” he said.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay urged people to show restraint and “do the minimum” if they visit family over Christmas.
“The position is not that we are scrapping the tiering system for five days – that we are letting people loose,” he said.