Three households from across the UK will be able to form a “Christmas bubble” over the five days between December 23 and December 27, the government announced on Tuesday.
Leaders of the devolved nations agreed in a meeting led by Michael Gove, the UK Cabinet Office minister, to relax coronavirus restrictions and allow people to travel across the country during the five-day window.
The Christmas plan marks a rare, common approach to the pandemic across the UK, where the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for health and have generally taken a more cautious approach than the UK government, which sets policy for England.
Mr Gove said the deal meant “families and friends will now have the option to meet up in a limited and cautious way across the UK should they wish”. But Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, urged Scots to think carefully before taking advantage of the easing.
“If you feel you can get through this Christmas without seeing other people or if you can see people for one day and not across five days, then try to limit your interaction,” Ms Sturgeon said.
Households in a “Christmas bubble” will only be permitted to meet within private homes, outdoor public spaces or places of worship and not have to adhere to social distancing rules. They will not be able to meet in pubs or restaurants.
Those travelling to and from Northern Ireland will have an extra day either side of the five-day window to account for the more complex journey.
Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, said: “Everyone has done so much to help control the spread of the virus . . . We are all looking forward to Christmas and a chance to spend some time with all those we hold dear.”
Coronavirus cases in Wales are falling sharply after a 17-day lockdown that ended on November 8. Up to four people are allowed to gather in hospitality venues — but travel in and out of Wales is restricted to essential journeys only.
Each devolved nation will clarify its own specific rules on support bubbles and extended households in the coming days: the Scottish government said there would be some differences in how the rules would be applied.
UK transport secretary Grant Shapps warned people to think about their travel plans as Christmas rail engineering works would disrupt some services. The network is closed on December 26, leading to concerns that the roads could become gridlocked given the limited time people have to travel.
“We are going to be appealing to people to look very carefully at the transport route they take and of course even make a choice about whether they travel at all,” Mr Shapps told BBC before the window was announced.
Earlier in the week, prime minister Boris Johnson urged caution over Christmas.
“It is the season to be jolly but it is also the season to be jolly careful especially with elderly relatives,” he said as he announced stricter regional coronavirus restrictions in England when lockdown ends on December 2.
Scientists have also warned against complacency throughout the festive season.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the joint committees on Health and Social Care and Science and Technology on Tuesday: “I have to speak bluntly — the virus doesn’t care if it is Christmas, we still have pretty high prevalence across the country, it is risky for people to mix indoors with alcohol, with elderly relatives at this point in time.”
While Ms Sturgeon agreed to the Christmas easing, she disappointed many would-be revellers by insisting that it could not be stretched to New Year’s Eve, which is known as Hogmanay in Scotland and is traditionally a bigger celebration.
“We must be clear, there cannot be any further relaxation of measures for Hogmanay,” the first minister said. “Even this short relaxation will give the virus a chance to spread.”
Mr Drakeford said he wanted the four nations to agree a joint approach after Christmas to prevent an upsurge in the virus after the social mixing.