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Chaotic Christmas Mixing Plans Leave England, Scotland and Wales With Different Messaging

The four nations have split over the Christmas rules

6 min read

Plans for a four nations approach to the Christmas relaxation have been thrown into chaos after the Scottish and Welsh governments announced a range of sweeping changes to the plans.

Leaders in Scotland and Wales revealed tougher guidance for the festive period just minutes after Boris Johnson confirmed there had been a "unanimous" agreement not to change the law already planned for Christmas restrictions.

So while the legal basis for the festive relaxtion will remain the same across all four nations of the UK, it is expected that each country will now diverge on guidance, meaning tougher messaging  on what people should and should not do over Christmas in different regions.

It had been previously agreed that across the UK up to three households would be able to mix indoors for five days from 23-27 December. This remains the limit of the law on relaxing restrictions over Christmas in all four nations, as well as the guidance in England.

But in Wales, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has now recommended that only two households mix. Christmas will also be followed by a period of strict lockdown in Wales. 

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Strugeon has recommended that households mix for only one day, rather than five over Christmas, and has advised against overnight stays. 

Following days of criticism of the Christmas relaxation, after millions more people now face tough tier three restrictions due to rising infection rates, the Prime Minister has doubled down on sticking with the plans. 

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said while the law would not chance, he was urging people to exercise "extreme caution".

"Of course, it’s always going to be safest to minimise the number of people you meet and that means that, if you're visiting others over Christmas, we're asking you in the five days beforehand, as early as this Friday, to reduce the number of people you're in contact with to the lowest possible, because obviously this virus spreads through human contact."

And he said that people should avoid visiting family members in care homes during the festive period until they had been vaccinated.

The PM added that ministers had made a "judgement" about the rules, adding that it would people's "natural instinct to want to see their families".

He added: "What we're trying to do is to set the paramenters that we think are sensible and we've come up with a maximum that we think is sensible across the whole of the UK.

"Everybody should exercise personal responsibility, judging yourselves how best to reduce the contact, the meeting of other people that is the way of spreading this disease.

Meanwhile, England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said they had had to make "really hard choices" between "two bad options".

And he admitted the relaxation would lead to an increase in deaths.

"Any kind of period where people come together in groups that otherwise wouldn't meet leads to an increase in risks and that will lead to an increase in hospitalisations and deaths," he said.

"That's been consistently what we've said will happen, not just scientists but political leaders, but what we've tried to do is to then find out what are the things you can do to reduce the risk.

"Reducing this number of households who meet up together to the lowest you can manage in this period, shortening the period of time, because shortening the period of time also has an important effect, and reducing the movement of people from high transmission areas to low transmission areas, all of these, modelling and other forms of science, all make clear will reduce the risk significantly further than if we didn't do those."

A government spokesperson said that a full joint statement would be published later today, but despite the comments, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced the country would move to a higher 'alert level 4' ahead of the holidays, saying a "smaller Christmas is a safer Christmas".

Announcing the updated guidance at a lunchtime press conference Mr Drakeford struck a markedly different tone: "Many of you will have seen the warnings from senior clinicians about the huge impact coronavirus is having on the whole of our health service.

"The situation we are facing is extremely serious. We must move to alert level four and tighten the restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus and save lives.

"This new set of higher-level restrictions will apply to the whole of Wales.

"This means all non-essential retail, including close contact services and all leisure and fitness centres will close at the end of trading on Christmas Eve.

"All hospitality premises will close from 6pm on Christmas Day."

"And on December 28, at the end of the five day Christmas period, tighter restrictions for household mixing, staying-at-home, holiday accommodation and travel will apply."

He added: "I think I will be as clear as I am able to be at this point. The result of the meetings between the four nations has not yet been published.

"I cannot anticipate that statement and it would be unfair to all the other governments of the UK.

"The top message is as clear as it can be. Here in Wales over the Christmas period the clear message from the Welsh Government is that only two households should meet.

"That is how serious things are in Wales. Whether that is guidance, whether that is regulation, the message is the same."

Meanwhile, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told reporters that while she was not in favour of taking away the "flexibility" of the Christmas relaxation that she would ask Scots only to meet in Christmas bubbles for one day and not stay overnight.

And Northern Ireland's health minister Robin Swann said the public should be "risk aware" during the relaxation, adding: "Remember the situations and activities that help the virus spread.

"Keep your distance, stop your contacts with others outside your household or Christmas bubble and keep each other safe."

The change in approach comes just a day after two top medical journals described the plans as a "major blunder".

In a rare joint intervention, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and Health Service Journal (HSJ) said the "rash decision" to allow household mixing over Christmas could lead to a third wave in cases that could swamp NHS resources in the new year.

They added: "We are publishing it because we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives. If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be protecting the NHS."

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