COVID-19 winter plan: What to expect beyond lockdown and over Christmas

Coronavirus rules will be relaxed over Christmas across the UK under a plan being worked up to let people celebrate with their families.

Leaders in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have agreed their respective restrictions should change to be harmonised “for a small number of days” over the festive period.

While the details are still being worked out, the aim of allowing “additional household bubbling” was confirmed in a statement released on Sunday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also working on tweaks to the regional tier system due to come back into effect when the national lockdown in England ends on 2 December

He will announce which tier each area is going into on Thursday.

What is the new system going to look like?

The country will move back into a three-tier system of regional restrictions, which was in force from 14 October until 5 November.

While many local measures will be similar to those in place previously, the tiers will be strengthened in some areas to safeguard gains made during the national lockdown.

It’s understood that the 10pm curfew for bars and restaurants could be extended by an hour. Last orders would still be called at 10pm, but people would have until 11pm to finish their food and drink.

What was the original tier system?

It was split into three “COVID alert levels” based generally on the prevalence of the virus.

  • Tier 1 (Medium): Rule of six if meeting indoors or outdoors; pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm
  • Tier 2 (High): No household mixing indoors; rule of six applies outdoors; pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm
  • Tier 3 (Very high): No household mixing indoors or in some outdoor spaces; pubs and bars not serving meals are closed

What is expected over Christmas?

Several households – potentially three – could be allowed to create a bubble temporarily between 22 and 28 December.

The plans could cover all four nations of the UK, according to reports.

Restrictions on church services could also be lifted allowing Christmas Day services to be held.

Official confirmation of the objective to let families see each other came in a statement from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove following talks with leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Ministers endorsed a shared objective of facilitating some limited additional household bubbling for a small number of days,” he said, adding talks are also underway with the Irish government to let people in Northern Ireland see family living there.

But senior politicians have tried to make clear that the festive season will be very different to normal.

Prof Calum Semple, a scientist who sits on the government’s science advice group known as SAGE, told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “In reality, we cannot ban Christmas. To do so would just lead to breaches – and what are you going to do about that?

“So instead what we’re looking at is getting the R number down, but also getting the absolute number of cases down,” he explained.

“Then you’ve got the run up to Christmas – and hopefully, if the system works, we’ll be able to relax some regulations for a few days. But there will be a price for that.”

How long will the new system last?

The government is optimistic restrictions can be gradually reduced in the run-up to spring, providing vaccines are approved by regulators, allowing a plan for the rollout to begin next month before a wider programme in the new year.

But with no vaccines having been approved it is still not clear exactly when the rollout will be able to begin.

Will Boris Johnson get his plan past the House of Commons?

A large group of Conservatives will be glad the harsher national lockdown is coming to an end – but are still making their displeasure about the regional restrictions due to replace it known.

70 of them, called the “COVID Recovery Group” of backbench Tories, have released a letter calling for the prime minister to publish a “cost/ benefit analysis” of the new system.

“We cannot support this approach further unless the government demonstrates the restrictions proposed for after 2 December will… save more lives than they cost,” they wrote.

One of the signatories, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, complained that the government “haven’t been fully listening to us”.

Demonstrating how seriously they are about potentially opposing the measures, he told Sky News: “We’re not natural rebellers.

“We don’t want to cause the government trouble but on the other hand we do want the government to take notice of what we are saying.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak refused three times to commit to the demand when interviewed on Sophy Ridge On Sunday, only saying: “It’s right that we look at all of the impacts of fighting coronavirus in the round and they are not just economic.”

(c) Sky News 2020: COVID-19 winter plan: What to expect beyond lockdown and over Christmas

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