Festive 'bubbles' approved as coronavirus restrictions relaxed for Christmas

Families will be able to celebrate Christmas together in “festive bubbles” after the four nations of the UK agreed to a relaxation of coronavirus lockdown rules.

For a small number of days over the festive period, loved ones will be able to get together, although the no social contact rule will still be in place ensuring no celebratory hugs after months of separation.

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The Cabinet Office revealed that ministers from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had endorsed a “shared objective of facilitating some limited additional household bubbling for a small number of days”.

Christmas celebrations with family will be allowed - though hugs are still to be avoided.

Agreement was reached between the four nations following talks on Saturday, but it was emphasised the public would still be advised to “remain cautious”, and that “wherever possible people should avoid travelling and minimise social contact”. Discussions are still ongoing around how many people can be in a “bubble” and around travel arrangements, but it is expected a deal will be reached this week.

The news comes a month after Scotland's national clinical director, Professor Jason Leitch had told Scots to get ready for a “digital Christmas” and as the coronavirus death toll in Scotland rose by seven in the past 24 hours.

Scottish Government figures published today showed the number of fatalities by this measure – when a positive test has been returned in the preceding 28 days – had increased to 3,503. Across Scotland, 844 new cases were recorded, taking the total number of positive tests to 88,361.

The NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area again had the highest increase in daily cases at 309, followed by Lanarkshire on 181 and Lothian, where 119 were recorded. The number of admissions to hospital was down 23 to 1,170, while those in intensive car fell by five to 95.

Despite the rise in cases, the statement released today by the UK government, said agreement had been reached between Michael Gove, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, about Christmas restriction relaxations.

It said there had been “good progress” by all administrations to "design a single set of arrangements that can apply across the UK” and added: “Ministers reiterated the importance of allowing families and friends to meet in a careful and limited way, while recognising that this will not be a normal festive period and the risks of transmission remain very real.

“As such, Ministers endorsed a shared objective of facilitating some limited additional household bubbling for a small number of days, but also emphasised that the public will be advised to remain cautious, and that wherever possible people should avoid travelling and minimise social contact.

"Work is continuing to finalise the arrangements, including relating to travel. The UK Government, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive hope to conclude this work this week, subject to agreement by each administration.”

The statement came just hours after Scotland's health secretary Jeane Freeman had said discussions between the leaders of the devolved administrations and Michael Gove, had been “productive and constructive so far” but there was still no settled decision on relaxation of restrictions for Christmas or Hogmanay yet.

Speaking on the BBC's Politics Scotland programme, she said: “We realise people want to spend some time with their family but we need to be careful here because we know that as soon as we start mixing together the virus will spread, so the objective for me as health secretary, is that everyone abides by the restrictions and follows the advice.

“Discussions are underway so we can try and get alignment across the four nations, but right now we have to do all we can to drive down the infection so it gives us a better starting point for the festive season. We know that any mixing at all will increase the infection rate and number of cases so we need to do that from the lowest possible base. We need to reach a four-nation agreement so the same restrictions and relaxation – in a limited way – will apply across the four nations.”

It also comes ahead of a statement due to be given by Boris Johnson tomorrow detailing his “winter Covid plan”, including the basis of plans for the festive period although he will be unable to say how many households will be allowed to mix over Christmas and for how many days restrictions will be relaxed until a later date.

However Chancellor Rishi Sunak warned today that “Christmas is not going to be normal”. He said: “I think frustrating as it is for all of us, Christmas is not going to be normal this year. But that said, the Prime Minister and everyone else, we're looking at ways to see how families can spend some time with each other over (the) Christmas period.

“Obviously that's something that we would like to do and it's been a difficult year for all of us, but as I said it's not going to be a normal Christmas this year.”

Last month Professor Leitch had warned against people being hopeful that Christmas might be saved. “We are not going to be in large groupings with multiple families coming round – that is fiction for this year,” he said. But, I'm hopeful that if we can get the numbers down to a certain level, we may be able to get some form of normality.

“People should get their digital Christmas ready,” he added.

Today’s announcement was welcomed by the Scottish Conservatives, whose health spokesman Donald Cameron said: “We urge the Scottish Government to work with the UK Government to make sure Christmas goes ahead as normally as possible. If ever there was an issue where both of Scotland’s governments should put politics aside, this is it.”

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