Christmas plans for millions of people have been thrown into chaos, after Boris Johnson banned gatherings in London and large swathes of the southeast and slashed the period of relaxed restrictions to just one day in the rest of England.
Only days after he confirmed plans for a five-day festive amnesty lasting from 23-27 December, during which up to three households could meet indoors, and said it would be “inhuman” to ask people to give up their Christmas plans, the prime minister announced new rules in response to the emergence of a virulent mutant strain of Covid-19.
More than 10 million people in London and surrounding counties are barred from mixing with anyone from outside their households.
And for the rest of England the “Christmas bubble” period is cut to a single day on 25 December itself.
Speaking at a 10 Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said: "As prime minister, it’s my duty to take difficult decisions, to do what is right to protect the people of this country.
“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus and the potential risk it poses, it is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.
Read more: Tier 4 rules and restrictions explained
“In England, those living in tier 4 areas should not mix with anyone outside their own household at Christmas, though support bubbles will remain in place, for those at particular risk of loneliness or isolation.
“Across the rest of the country, the Christmas rules allowing up to three households to meet will now be limited to Christmas Day only, rather than the five days as previously set out."
Mr Johnson said there would be no relaxation of rules on New Year’s Eve.
The PM said: “I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is, for instance, for grandparents to see their grandchildren and for families to be together.
“So I know how disappointing this will be. But we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science. When the science changes, we must change our response.
“And when the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defence.
"And as your prime minister I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me. Without action, the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.”
Asked what message he would send to people who have made plans and spent money to prepare for Christmas, Mr Johnson said: “Of course, we bitterly regret that this is necessary this year.
"I know how much love and caring thought goes into preparations for Christmas.
“I suppose the message is that this is the year to lift a glass to those who aren’t there in the knowledge that it's precisely because they aren’t there to celebrate Christmas with you this year that we will have a better chance that they'll be there next year to celebrate Christmas with you.”
The tier 4 ban on households mixing at Christmas covers the whole of inner and outer London, as well as the counties of Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Surrey, excluding Waverley.
Also going into tier 4 from Sunday and subject to the Christmas bubble ban are Peterborough, Portsmouth, Gosport, Havant, Rother and Hastings, as well as the whole of Essex except for Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: “These further restrictions are a bitter blow for Londoners who were hoping to spend time with loved ones safely this Christmas, and for businesses who have already suffered so much this year.
“London faces its toughest Christmas since the war and the whole city will need to pull together to see us through this terrible period.
“London and the country are paying the price for the Government’s continued failure to get a handle on the pandemic. This continued chaos and confusion could all have been avoided had the Government not made irresponsible promises to the public and raised expectations about the Christmas period."
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