Coronavirus: Family Christmas get-togethers being considered

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Family around dining table at Christmas

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Ministers are looking at how to relax coronavirus restrictions so families can celebrate Christmas together.

The government’s medical adviser on Covid, Dr Susan Hopkins, said they were working on a plan and wanted Christmas to be “as close to normal as possible”.

BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle said any rule change would be for a limited time, maybe just a few days.

Cabinet minister Alok Sharma said it was too early for “conclusions” but he wanted to see his family for Christmas.

It comes after

the Sun reported that families may be able to mix indoors for five days from Christmas Eve.

All four UK nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are trying to work out a common approach to Christmas so families spread across the UK can still meet up.

Our correspondent said any final decisions would not be made for a few weeks while health chiefs wait to see whether cases have started to come down during the lockdown in England.

But, he said, the advice was likely to urge families not to hold big gatherings and to travel by car, rather than public transport.

England is expected to come out of its second national lockdown on 2 December and return to the tier system of localised restrictions, with household mixing banned indoors in the top two tiers.

Dr Hopkins, from Public Health England, suggested tougher restrictions could be needed either side of Christmas if curbs were to be eased over the festive period.

“Coming into Christmas we need to be very careful about the number of contacts that we have, to reduce transmission before Christmas and get our cases as low as possible,” she told a Downing Street briefing.

“Hopefully the government will make the decision that will allow us to have some mixing, but we will wait and see what that is.

“Once we have got past the Christmas period, if there has been a release and some socialisation, we will all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again.”

She added: “This is a decision that will be made by government and I know that they’re working hard to develop an outline of what that will look like and what the new tiers will look like post-December 2 and what Christmas will look like.”

New tougher regional tiers could see pubs and restaurants closed entirely in areas in the top tier throughout the festive period, our correspondent said.

A government source said: “There are lots of discussions going on – and anything we do, we want to do on a UK-wide basis.

“But first we have to see infection levels come down. The coming weeks will be vital.”

Earlier, Mr Sharma told BBC Breakfast people needed to keep bearing down on the infection and “do our bit”.

Asked how far off a decision was, the business secretary said: “We just have to see where we get to.”

He said he “certainly would like to have as normal a Christmas as possible,” but warned it may not be “as normal” as previous years.

On Tuesday, Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March, suggested extending support bubbles to up to four households to allow families to celebrate Christmas together.

“You could think of allowing three or four households to bubble together for a week but not contact anybody else, which would give more opportunity to see loved ones but not a free-for-all,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.

“And that, modelling would suggest, increases risk somewhat but in a controllable way.”

This year, Christmas Eve falls on Thursday and there is a bank holiday on the following Monday, giving most workers at least a four-day break.

Prof Ferguson also warned that reopening pubs and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas would be likely to lead to rising infection levels.

“The big question in practical terms is can we reopen hospitality venues – pubs and restaurants – in the run-up to Christmas and still avoid infection levels increasing?” he said.

“I suspect we can’t, but the decision may be made to do so anyhow on the basis that any increase will be slow and may be able to be counteracted later.”

There have been calls for a single approach from the devolved administrations in the UK about Christmas – so families who live in different nations can deal with a single set of rules.

Welsh ministers have said it could be weeks before an announcement on Covid rules is made, and warned this year’s festive period would “not be like normal”.

Ministers in Northern Ireland said they would do all they could to “protect” as much of Christmas as possible.

And Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the plan in Scotland was to take “early action now” to bring down the spread of coronavirus so people can be with families over Christmas and the NHS can deal with the normal pressures of January and February.

On Tuesday, the government said a further 598 people had died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the total number of deaths in the UK 52,745. And there were 20,051 more lab-confirmed cases.

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