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UK Christmas travel window: What are the rules for the four nations?

Everything you need to know about getting home over the festive period

Helen Coffey
Thursday 17 December 2020 15:31 GMT
Driving home for Christmas? These are the rules
Driving home for Christmas? These are the rules (PA)

After Boris Johnson’s announcement that Christmas isn’t cancelled after all (despite surging numbers of coronavirus cases around country), many households will be finalising their Christmas travel plans to see family and friends over the festive period.

The devolved UK nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have similar but slightly different rules and guidance when it comes to travelling this December.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Travelling in England

England’s Christmas “travel window” – when the normal tier-dependent travel rules are suspended – will run from 23 to 27 December.

“Between 23 and 27 December, you should consider carefully the risks of travelling to see your Christmas bubble,” says the guidance. “If you live in an area with the highest level of protection, for example, tier 3 in England and level 4 in Scotland, you should avoid travelling to lower prevalence areas where possible.”

However, this is not legally banned, and the emphasis is on individuals to take their own decision on whether or not to travel.

Christmas bubbles can be made up of up to three households.

Those who are travelling are advised to plan their journeys carefully and book ahead where possible. Once at their destination, they should follow the guidelines of the tier they’re in and avoid “unnecessary” travel.  

The dates are strict, and travellers are told they should return home on or before 27 December except in exceptional circumstances, such as unforeseen travel disruption or if a member of their Christmas bubble develops coronavirus symptoms and everyone is required to self-isolate.

However, those travelling between England and Northern Ireland have a little more leeway, and may travel from 22 December up until 28 December.

You can stay in a hotel, hostel or B&B in England over the Christmas period where necessary, including in tier 3 areas between 22 and 28 December. However, you should not gather as a Christmas bubble in a hotel, hostel or B&B in any tier unless a member of your bubble lives there permanently.

But you can stay in private rented accommodation such as a short-term holiday let with your Christmas bubble.

Travelling in Scotland

Travel within or from Scotland should be limited to the same “window” – 23 to 27 December – including travel to the Scottish Islands.

The country has issued tougher guidance than England, advising people to limit their Christmas bubble to two households (rather than the legal maximum of three) and avoid overnight stays.  

“Minimise the time spent with your bubble, especially indoors,” states the guidance. “The five day period is a window of opportunity, not a recommended time. We recommend you do not meet up with people in your bubble on any more than one day over the period and do not stay overnight unless it is unavoidable.”  

The Scottish government is also advising people to minimise the distance they intend to travel, and to avoid all travel between high prevalence and low prevalence areas, eg avoiding travel between Scotland and tier 3 areas in England, and to or from any level 4 areas in Scotland (of which there are currently none).

“Those living in a tier 3 area in England and a level 4 local authority area in Scotland are advised not to travel to form Christmas bubbles,” says the advice.

Where return travel requires an overnight journey by public transport, for example from Shetland to the mainland, travellers are advised to start their journey on 27 December.

As with the England guidelines, the only exception to the 27 December return date is if your travel is disrupted or if a member of your bubble develops Covid symptoms and you are required to self-isolate.

Those travelling to form a Christmas bubble are advised to follow the rules of whatever area they’re staying in, for instance avoiding all non-essential travel if they are staying in a level 3 area once they’ve arrived.

Those travelling between Scotland and Northern Ireland or County Donegal can begin their journeys on 22 December in order to arrive at a Christmas bubble gathering on the 23 December.

Even during the Christmas window, people living in level 3 and 4 areas must not travel abroad, and those living in Level 1 and 2 areas are strongly advised against non-essential international travel.  

Travelling in Wales

Between 23 and 27 December, people in Wales can travel anywhere within the UK for the purposes of meeting their Christmas bubble.

However, the Welsh government has tightened restrictions, and announced that people in Wales must limit their bubbles to two households (rather than the three permitted in England). The country will also be plunged into a new three-week lockdown from 28 December.

For those who are travelling to meet their bubble, the advice is to follow the rules in place at the destination they’re staying in.

Wales to bring in tighter coronavirus restrictions after Christmas

Anyone travelling to or from Northern Ireland may also travel on the 22 and 28 December, but cannot meet up with their bubble outside the 23-27 December window. They are permitted to stay in hotels in Wales on the nights of 22 and 27 December.

People travelling from elsewhere in the UK must not travel outside of the five-day window except in exceptional circumstances (for example, if you develop coronavirus symptoms while staying with your Christmas bubble and are required to self-isolate).

The Welsh government advises that transport routes may be busier than normal and that travellers should: plan their journey; check for disruption; avoid making unnecessary stops; and, where possible, avoid public transport and avoid sharing a car with people not in their household.

You can stay in a hotel or other forms of holiday accommodation such as holiday rental accommodation during the Christmas period, but in Wales you can only do this with people you live with (or someone who is with you to provide care for a vulnerable person).

Travelling in Northern Ireland

As with the other devolved nations, within Northern Ireland you should travel to meet your Christmas bubble (up to three households) and return home within the designated window: 23 to 27 December.

However, if you are travelling outside of Northern Ireland to meet your Christmas bubble in England, Scotland or Wales, you can do so between 22 and 28 December, if necessary.

Travellers are advised to abide by the local rules that are in place at their destination. The Northern Ireland guidance also warns that transport routes may be busier than normal.  

“Plan your journey and check for disruption before you leave to help keep everyone safe when travelling for Christmas,” says the advice.

Between 23 and 27 December, international travel to and from Northern Ireland continues to be permitted, governed by the current Covid-19 travel rules.

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