The UK’s Christmas coronavirus rules have been thrown into confusion after Boris Johnson said the easing of restrictions would go ahead as planned – while also urging people to “think hard” about seeing their family.
The prime minister’s warning at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday afternoon followed earlier chaos in which the Welsh and Scottish governments changed their advice over festive gatherings next week.
Johnson had confirmed the four UK nations reached a “unanimous agreement” to continue as planned with the “Christmas bubble” policy, despite mounting pushback from experts over the risks.
The rules allow three households to mix indoors between 23 and 27 December.
At the Downing Street briefing, however, Johnson issued a string of warnings about the risks of a family Christmas this year.
The PM said he was “asking you to think hard and in detail about the days ahead” as he said a “smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas and a shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas”.
Johnson stated the five-day easing of rules is not a “target to aim for” as he added: “Have yourselves a merry little Christmas.” Spluttering, he continued: “I’m afraid this year I do mean little.”
The PM had first announced the easing of the rules would go ahead as planned three-and-a-half hours earlier at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Confusion began within minutes as Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said at a press conference he would be recommending that only two households should form a bubble over the five-day period.
Watch: Boris Johnson confirms Christmas easing of restrictions
“The fewer people we mix with in our homes,” he said, “the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus.”
Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon then said at another press conference it was her “strong recommendation” that people do not see relatives at Christmas unless “essential”.
She said: “If you haven’t made plans to form a bubble, please don’t.”
To add to the confusion, Drakeford and Sturgeon both said updated guidance would be issued later on Wednesday.
The faltering of the UK-wide approach came after talks took place on Tuesday and Wednesday involving the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
Johnson has been under pressure to tighten – or even abandon – the loosening of rules over Christmas that was announced three weeks ago.
A further 18,450 COVID-19 infections were confirmed in the UK on Tuesday, with two leading medical journals warning an easing of restrictions would “cost many lives” and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer demanding an urgent review.
On Tuesday, a YouGov survey of 3,856 adults on Tuesday indicated 57% of Britons believe the plans should be dropped and that the current rules should remain in place during the festive period.
Some 31% said the easing should go ahead as planned, while 12% said they were unsure.
Watch: The COVID dos and don’ts of Christmas this year