Boris Johnson has urged the public to have a merry but “little” Christmas after a UK-wide consensus on plans to ease strict coronavirus rules over the festive period shattered.
Both Scotland and Wales announced different advice just hours after it emerged that the relaxation of restrictions for five days over Christmas would go ahead despite fears over rising numbers of cases.
Wales slashed the number of households who can form a “Christmas bubble”, from three to two, while Scots were urged to meet for just one day and to avoid overnight stays.
In England, the prime minister urged the public to show “extreme caution” over the festive season.
At a press conference in Downing Street, he warned: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, and I’m afraid this year I do mean little.”
Appearing alongside Mr Johnson, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the guidance for Christmas get-togethers was now “keep it small, keep it short, keep it local”.
Under plans announced almost a month ago, and initially agreed by all four parts of the UK, up to three households are allowed by law to mix between December 23 and 27.
But Mr Johnson issued a plea for that number to be seen as a maximum rather than a target in England.
With the first patients now receiving their Covid vaccines, he also suggested Britons could delay visiting elderly relatives, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, until after they had been given jabs.
Those planning to meet on Christmas Day have been told they should self-isolate as much as possible from Friday onwards, to reduce the chance of passing on the disease over the break.
They should also avoid travelling and staying overnight away from home unless absolutely necessary.
The number of days spent in a bubble should be minimised, and precautions taken around social distancing, hand washing and ventilation of rooms.
The Welsh government went further, announcing a new lockdown that will start on December 28 as well as cutting, in law, the number of households who can “bubble”.
In Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “If you haven't made plans to form a bubble, please don’t.
“If you are still swithering, please decide against. And if you have made plans but think they are not really essential, please think about postponing until later in the year.”
Mr Johnson said it would be “inhuman” to prevent people mixing with friends and family this Christmas.
But he admitted that the battle against Covid-19 was more challenging than he had hoped when he first set out plans to relax the rules.
“While it would not be right to criminalise people who have made plans and simply want to spend time with their loved ones, we are all collectively – across the UK, governments at every level – asking you to think hard and in detail about the days ahead and whether you can do more to protect yourself and others,” he said.
He also urged people to avoid crowds at Boxing Day sales or New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Prof Whitty compared the situation to a motorist deciding not to drive at the 70mph speed limit on an icy road.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” he said.
“Obviously if everybody pushes it right to the limit in every single household that would be a significant problem.”
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of ignoring the medical advice by pressing ahead with the plans days after ministers were forced to put London under the toughest coronavirus restrictions.
In Wales all non-essential retail will close after the end of trading on Christmas Eve, while all hospitality will close from 6pm on Christmas Day.
Later a joint statement released by the UK government, Scottish government, and Welsh government warned: “A smaller Christmas is a safer Christmas, and a shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas. The safest way to spend this Christmas is with your own household or your existing support bubble in your own home – and we strongly recommend that this is what you do if at all possible.”
“Only form a bubble if you feel you absolutely need to.”
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