Gove holds talks as calls grow to scrap easing of Covid rules at Christmas

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Urgent talks are taking place between the leaders of the devolved administrations and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove as calls mount to scrap plans for an easing of Covid-19 restrictions over Christmas.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued there is a case for lessening the planned freedoms for the festive period to combat a rise in infections and indicated she could break with the four-nations approach.

But her Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford said the current plans were a “hard-won agreement” and that he will “not lightly put it aside” ahead of the meeting on Tuesday.

Downing Street conceded that the planned five-day Christmas easing to allow three households to mix indoors between December 23-27 was being kept “under constant review”.

Mr Gove and the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were to discuss the Christmas coronavirus rules at 5pm on Tuesday, the PA news agency understands.

The meeting was scheduled as the Government said a further 506 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK total to 64,908. A further 18,450 coronavirus infections were also confirmed in labs as of 9am on Tuesday.

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK
(PA Graphics)

“I do think there is a case for us looking at whether we tighten the flexibilities that were given any further both in terms of duration and numbers of people meeting,” she told the Scottish Parliament.

“And I will consider the views of the other nations – if we can come to a four-nations agreement, I think that would be preferable.

“If that is not possible, then of course we will consider within the Scottish Government what we think is appropriate.”

In Wales, Mr Drakeford told the Senedd that “the choice is a grim one, isn’t it?” and highlighted “heart-rending pleas” he has received from people to not reverse the existing plan.

“I think the choice is an incredibly difficult one,” he added.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the Labour leader accused ministers of having “lost control of infections” and warned that “the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse since the decision about Christmas was taken”.

“If you conclude with Government scientists that we need to take tougher action to keep people safe over Christmas, then you will have my support,” Sir Keir said.

Earlier, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal published a rare joint editorial calling for the “rash” decision to relax social distancing measures over the festive period to be scrapped.

They said that the Government “is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.

In response to suggestions that the Christmas arrangements could be restricted to three days or two households, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We have set out the guidance for the Christmas bubbling arrangements.

“But… we obviously keep all advice under constant review.”

The joint editorial warning, authored by HSJ editor Alastair McLellan and BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee, noted that when the Government devised the Christmas plan “the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing”.

People dining on outdoor tables at a restaurant in Soho, London
People dining on outdoor tables at a restaurant in Soho, London (Yui Mok/PA)

“Members of the public can and should mitigate the impact of the third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months. But many will see the lifting of restrictions over Christmas as permission to drop their guard.

“The Government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn.

“It 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.”

Reducing the planned easing may further anger Tory backbenchers who oppose restrictions, but a poll suggested the majority of Britons believe the relaxation should be scrapped.

Covid-19 alert system in England
(PA Graphics)

Some 31% said the easing should go ahead as planned, while 12% said they were unsure.

The relaxation of regulations looms as the Government is putting London, much of Essex and part of Hertfordshire under the strictest Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday.

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.

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