Coronavirus restrictions in the UK will be eased over Christmas to allow as many as three households to meet indoors.
Households will be able to meet in a “Christmas bubble” in homes, places of worship and outdoor spaces between Dec. 23-27, the leaders of the four UK nations agreed Tuesday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to balance demands to bolster the economy and allow people more freedoms with the need to keep the coronavirus in check before a potential vaccine can be rolled out. England has been under a four-week lockdown that’s set to end Dec. 2, to be replaced with a regional three-tier system of restrictions.
Other European leaders are fighting their own battles: French President Emmanuel Macron will gradually lift a nationwide lockdown from Saturday following weeks of criticism from shopkeepers, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to extend the country’s partial lockdown as Covid-19 cases remain high.
UK ministers will announce Thursday which regions in England will be placed into each tier. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has been lobbying the government to put the city into tier 2, which would allow pubs, bars and restaurants to stay open.
Under the new Christmas plans, people will be able to travel between tiers and across the whole of the UK, as long as they only meet with those in their “exclusive” bubble of three households. Those travelling to and from Northern Ireland will be allowed an extra day to travel either side of the five-day period.
The move was agreed after days of talks between Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and the leaders of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In a joint statement, they said: “Even where it is within the rules, meeting with friends and family over Christmas will be a personal judgment for individuals to take, mindful of the risks to themselves and others, particularly those who are vulnerable.”
In a video message on Twitter, Johnson urged people not to “throw caution to the wind,” adding: “The virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas, and we must all be careful.”
But doctors from the British Medical Association immediately raised concerns. In an emailed statement, BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul said the move “will almost certainly carry the risk of a rise in infection rate and possibly more hospitalization and deaths.”
As the virus continues to rage across Europe, leaders are grappling with how to get infection rates down while keeping their economies afloat. In France, small stores will be permitted to open from Nov. 28 but restaurants will remain closed until at least Jan. 20, depriving the sector of the income from one of the busiest periods of the year.
Meanwhile, Germany is heading for an extension and further tightening of its partial lockdown, with Chancellor Merkel expected to agree with regional state premiers Wednesday on closing restaurants, gyms and cinemas until at least Dec. 20.
A number of UK lawmakers have expressed concern about Johnson’s new tougher regional restrictions, coming into force next week. Some have publicly aired their opposition to London going into tier 3, which they warn would hit already struggling businesses hard.
Health Minister Nadine Dorries spoke with London lawmakers on a video call Tuesday to hear their views ahead of the decision on the categorization of regions, two people familiar with the matter said.
Keeping London in tier 2 — where it was before lockdown — would be the “right and sensible decision,” given that cases are lower than “most other parts of the country,” Khan said in a statement Tuesday.
“London’s unique ecosystem of bars, restaurants, clubs and cultural venues have been through an extremely tough year,” he said. “If they had to close throughout the Christmas period and beyond in tier 3 it would be a hammer blow that many might not recover from.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday that no decision had yet been made. “London will come out at the tier that is necessary and appropriate based on the public health evidence,” he told MPs.