Europe Update

Coronavirus: ‘Too early’ to say if rules can be relaxed for Christmas, minister says

independent– Business secretary Alok Sharma has said it is “too early” to know whether Covid restrictions on could be eased at Christmas, amid reports the government is considering a special plan to “save” the holiday.

Downing Street officials are thought to be discussing whether to lift any restrictions on indoor gatherings over Christmas so several households can form a “bubble” for a short period.

Asked about reports that measures could be relaxed for around five days, Mr Sharma said: “I want to have my mum and dad around, I want to have members of my family around that Christmas table.

“I just think it’s too early to be reaching any conclusions on that,” he told BBC’s Breakfast. “What none of us knows right now is what the infection rate is going to be in different parts of the country … As we get to 2 December the government will set out more details.”

No 10 is examining whether it would be possible to have a five-day period when several households could mix — starting on Christmas Eve and ending on 28 December — according to The Sun. Other reports suggest the window for family gatherings may only be three days.

Boris Johnson has pledged that England will return to a “regional, tiered approach” when the nationwide lockdown ends on 2 December. But his ministers and health officials have signalled that the tiered system will be adapted and potentially “strengthened”.

The Telegraph has reported that all households across England could be banned from mixing indoors when the lockdown ends.

Ministers are said to be preparing an “end of lockdown package” for the beginning of December – including an easing of the rules at Christmas and a schedule for vaccination — to help soften any opposition.  

The former Sage scientist Professor Neil Ferguson said there were “ways of going part way” to allow families to meet over Christmas without transmission rates shooting up. “You could think of allowing three or four households to bubble together for a week but not contact anybody else,” he told the BBC.

On Wednesday morning, Dr Susan Hopkins told a Downing Street briefing that Sage scientific advice indicated that “for every day that we release (measures) we will need two days of tighter restrictions”.

She said: “So, coming into Christmas we need to be very careful about the number of contacts that we have, to reduce transmission before Christmas and get our cases as low as possible.

“Hopefully the government will make the decision that will allow us to have some mixing, but we will wait and see what that is. Then, I think, once we have got past the Christmas period if there has been a release and some socialisation we will all have to be very responsible and reduce those contacts again.”

Meanwhile, Mr Sharma refused to apologise for a lack of transparency in spending millions of pounds of tax-payer money to secure personal protection equipment (PPE), after a damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

“People were scrambling to get hold of this stuff, and we made every effort to make sure that we could get more PPE to the frontline,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The minister added: “We had to do an enormous amount of work very fast to secure PPE and that’s what we did, and I’m not going to apologise for the fact that quite rightly we made that effort.”

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