Boris Johnson is planning to toughen up guidance to families seeing elderly relatives over Christmas amid warnings the virus was again spiralling out of control.
The Prime Minister is expected to urge the public to “stay local” over the festive season to avoid spreading the disease across the country.
Ministers will hold more urgent talks tomorrow – Wednesday – with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they thrash out a plan to curb infections.
But Mr Johnson faced growing criticism over his decision to relax the rules over Christmas even though it risked a third wave of the deadly disease.
Health experts warned the PM that sticking to his plan to allow households to mix was a “major error” that would overwhelm the NHS and cost many lives.
The British Medical Association tonight called for an urgent review claiming the virus remained out of control.
A poll by YouGov found that 57% of Brits want the relaxation of rules over Christmas to be dropped, while 31% think the rules should stay.
It comes amid six suggested options to reduce virus spread over Christmas…
- Stick with the rules but tougher messaging
- Cut the number of days the rules are relaxed for from five to three
- Reduce the number of households that are allowed to mix from three to two
- Permit travel but restrict it to the same tier or region
- Move the Christmas relaxation window to a time when cases are lower
- Instruct people to self-isolate before seeing loved ones
Downing Street sources told the Mirror they would “certainly not” be changing the regulations to cancel gatherings or shorten the five-day festive break.
But they hinted the PM could take “sensible” measures including encouraging people to stay away from grandparents – or self-isolate first if they had to see them.
Whitehall insiders suggested the Government would also persuade the public to “try to stay local” instead of travelling across the country at Christmas.
But Mr Johnson faced accusations that he was so afraid to ‘cancel’ Christmas that he was prepared to put the health of the public at risk.
Another 506 people died yesterday from the disease while cases rose in almost every part of the country.
Experts admitted that the new fast-spreading mutation of the virus had now spread to Wales and Scotland.
Ministers were warned that pressing ahead with Christmas plans – which allow three households to mix between 23 and 27 and December – would cost many lives.
For only the second time in 100 years, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal joined forces to warn against “blundering into another major error” in its handling of the Covid pandemic that would overwhelm the NHS.
They warned that a third wave in January would be worse than the second wave as there are already more than 15,000 Covid patients in hospital.
At the start of the second wave in the first week of September, there were just 450.
In a joint editorial, they wrote: “The Government should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave.
“It should also review and strengthen the tier structure, which has failed to suppress rates of infection and hospitalisation.”
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul added: “We are facing a Christmas with Covid infection rates still very high and evidence that the most recent lockdown managed only to stabilise infection rates, which have since risen significantly.
“Whilst we understand that many families will naturally want to spend time together, we know that no one will want to put a family member or friend at risk from contracting the virus – that would be a terrible Christmas present and so we would urge everyone to do all they can to avoid this.”
Writing in the Mirror, Dr Katherine Henderson, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “We recognise the value to mental wellbeing of seeing friends and family and the desperation for people reunite but this will come at a cost.
“The easing of restrictions will lead to a rise in transmission of the virus in the community and an increase in the number of covid cases. This could lead to further lockdowns in January.
“So, we urge people to act responsibly this Christmas. This should not need a Government rule to happen.”
The Government’s Covid committee will review the tiering system tomorrow before announcing any changes tomorrow.
They are expected to split some regions with urban areas with higher case numbers staying up, while more rural areas could move to lower tiers.
Parts of West Yorkshire including Leeds are expected to go down into Tier 2, meaning hospitality can reopen and households mix outdoors.
But local MPs fear that despite falling rates in Greater Manchester, which has faced the toughest restrictions since July, there is little will to move them.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove was holding a second round of urgent talks with the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland after health experts demanded a U-turn.
Under rules agreed between the four UK governments, people in any tiers can travel and gather anywhere in the UK in their Christmas bubbles.
Downing Street admitted the rules were kept under “constant review” but refused to give a cut-off date for when people could be told to change their plans.
But since they were agreed, cases have risen exponentially in London and parts of the South East – forcing a total of 34.2m people into Tier 3 in England.
Before talks last night, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued the case for rowing back on planned freedoms to combat a rise in infections.
And she said while a four-nation approach was “preferable” Scotland would take its own tougher route if necessary.
But Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has said he will “not lightly put aside” the “hard-won” four nations agreement over household mixing at Christmas.
Wales already has tougher guidance than England, however, as households are advised to self-isolate if they plan to get together with vulnerable relatives.
Crucially, he pledged Labour would support the Government if it concluded that tougher restrictions are needed.
He wrote: “Any further tightening of restrictions will obviously be deeply disappointing to many across the country. But the public do not want false reassurance, warm words or ducked challenges from their Prime Minister. They want leadership.”
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said “all things were kept under review” as he urged people to show restraint at Christmas.
Mr Barclay said people need to “do the minimum” if they visit family over Christmas and warned that the easing of restrictions would not be a “tier zero” situation.
“The position is not that we are scrapping the tiering system for five days – that we are letting people loose,” he added.