Christmas crisis mounts as Nicola Sturgeon threatens to tear-up festive bubbles plan ahead of crunch four nations call

BORIS Johnson is under mounting pressure today as Nicola Sturgeon threatened to tear up the festive bubbles plan ahead of a crunch four-nations call tonight.

The Scottish First Minister said she'd asked for an emergency summit to look at "whether any additional precautions are necessary… including whether there should be any change over the Christmas period".

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Under plans agreed across the UK, up to three households will be able to form a "Christmas bubble" and meet between 23 and 27 December.

But in comments which threaten to throw the UK's Christmas plans into chaos, Ms Sturgeon suggested it could be changed as a result of recent events.

Her warning puts Boris in a difficult position as it was promised any agreement would be across the whole of the UK.

It comes after top doctors at the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal published a joint editorial calling on the Government to stop Christmas household mixing to protect the NHS.

And this afternoon Labour joined medics in demanding an emergency review of the relaxation of the rules – to see it was safe for people to meet up over the holidays.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove will hold a phonecall with leaders of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales this afternoon to discuss the Christmas rules.

The four leaders held another call just last Friday – but decided to continue to go ahead with the plans.

The fresh call – just four days later – may be a sign of sudden panic that it may be unsafe to go ahead with them.

Ms Sturgeon added: "I would urge the utmost caution, if you can avoid mixing with other households over Christmas than please do so.

"If you do feel it is essential to do so… please reduce your number of unnecessary contacts between now and then and of course follow all of the sensible mitigations."

She said Scotland must "retain the ability to be flexible" in a hint she wants to be able to impose different, tighter rules.

But Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford described the four nations approach to Christmas as a "hard-won agreement" and said he will "not lightly put it aside" – in a hint the rules may stay as they are.

In a letter to the Prime Minister today, Keir Starmer demanded another COBRA meeting to look at the issue.

He warned: "Sadly, it does now appear that the Government has – once again – lost control of infections, putting our economy and our NHS at grave risk in the new year.”

He adds: “I understand that people want to spend time with their families after this awful year, but the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse since the decision about Christmas was taken.

“It is my view that you should now convene COBRA in the next 24 hours to review whether the current relaxation is appropriate given the rising number of cases.”

And if they decided that it would be safer to scrap the rules, Sir Keir vowed to back him.

It came as:

  • Schools were ordered to remain open until the end of the week and Greenwich council bowed down to pressure from Government to u-turn
  • London, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be plunged into Tier 3 tonight
  • Matt Hancock revealed yesterday that a fresh strain of coronavirus could be spreading more quickly, and helping lead to an increase in cases in the South East
  • A new poll showed half (49%) of Britons believe that the new coronavirus rules over Christmas are not strict enough

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt came out to back the medics too – saying it was an "extremely important and powerful intervention".

Downing Street said this lunchtime when pressed repeatedly on whether they may change the rules: “We have set out the guidance for Christmas bubbling arrangements, but we obviously keep all advice under constant review."

What Christmas changes might be on the cards?

  • The number of days allowed to socialise may be cut down
  • People may be restricted to travel in their own countries, regions or even Tiers
  • The number of households bubbles allowed to meet could be cut down from three

Earlier minister Steve Barclay urged people to "do the minimum" seeing family and friends this Christmas, a stark watering down of the Government's message.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay refused to say whether there would be a change. He told Sky News today: "It's not saying that people must go and see family.

"It's saying that where families want to see each other, they won't be criminalised for doing so."

On BBC Breakfast he was asked: "In your mind is there a possibility that the Government might have to change the advice about the five day break?"

He replied, dodging the question: "I don't think we should misinterpret that advice over the period… it's not that all restrictions are being lifted."

And he was asked on Sky: "Is there any possibility that this Government will look again at the Christmas window, given the infection rate is where it is?

"Hundreds of thousands will be travelling – you can't tell me this doesn't remain under review."

Mr Barclay told Sky News: "All things are always kept under review."

And he added: "There's a balance to be struck here. Many families haven't seen people all year. But people shouldn't misinterpret what the guidelines say – where they want to see each other they won't be criminalized for doing so.

"Families will make their own judgements."

Chris Whitty has repeatedly stressed that just because people are allowed to travel to see family over Christmas, it doesn't mean they should.

A UK Government source stressed this morning there were "no plans" to change the Christmas rules.

And yesterday Downing Street insisted that the bubbles plans would go ahead – even for areas in the toughest tiers.

But it comes as other European countries have announced stricter rules over the Christmas break than the UK – and some worry the rules may be too lax.

One MP told Playbook: “I am kept awake at night imagining the nightmare of every other European country locking down much more severely over Christmas, while we don’t and end up with thousands more deaths.” 

DOCTORS' ORDERS

Today the BMJ and HSJ warned that Christmas mixing indoors “could wipe out almost all the reductions in waiting times for elective procedures achieved in the past 20 years” as hospitals would fill up with coronavirus patients.

They added: "we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives.

"If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be protecting the NHS.”

The historic editorial is only the second in more than 100 years, and comes just days before people are allowed to go to meet others for the festive season.

Earlier today London Mayor Sadiq Khan called on the Government to look again at the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We heard from Matt Hancock yesterday that it appears the Government is looking at this again. I would encourage them to do so if they are."

He said the capital would be going to Tier 3, then effectively Tier "0" before back up to Tier 3 again – and ministers "haven't got it right" on this.

Experts warned against meeting up if people could.

David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on Covid-19, said the price of such a relaxation "could well be very high".

Urging people to think carefully about their plans, he told Times Radio: "Just ask yourself, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year?

"It's much better not to do it when there's this kind of virus about."

Professor Stephen Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, said: "Right now we are heading towards disaster.

"Given high levels of infection across the country and the increasing levels in some areas (such as London) it is inevitable that if we all do choose to meet up over Christmas then we will pay the price in the new year."

What are the Christmas rules for other countries?

  • In Germany shops will close from tomorrow until mid-January – and over the Christmas period each household can have up to four adult guests (not including kids)
  • In France bars, restaurants and cinemas will stay closed, and an 8pm curfew will be in place.
  • The Netherlands is having a five-week lockdown starting today seeing everything except essential shops closed and people are told to stay home. Over Christmas they can have just three people to celebrate.
  • In Italy there's a travel ban between different regions specifically over the Christmas period – and people can't leave their home towns on 25th, 26th December, or 1st Jan. Already a series of regional lockdowns are in place
  • In Spain social gatherings on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day will be limited to 10 people (including kids)
  • Austria will see bars and restaurants closed over the holiday period – and people from areas of high infection still have to quarantine

Speaking at Downing Street last night, Mr Hancock would not rule out further action.

He said: "The best thing to do in the face of the virus is to act fast.. And we do not rule out further action.

"This rise in transmission and this new variant should be a warning to all to never lose sight of each of our own roles in this, our personal responsibility."

The Health Secretary also warned Brits repeatedly to be careful care at Christmas, as many people prepare to head home and see their loved ones.

He fell short of telling people to self-isolate before seeing elderly relatives, but he stressed people should be "extremely" cautious about who they see in the run up to the festive period.

And England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty also struck a cautious tone, saying people should not meet at Christmas just because they can.

He said: "The point of this (relaxation of rules) is for, under certain circumstances, families who wish to, to get together, but they really have to be very, very careful.

"And in particular, incredibly careful if they're around people who are vulnerable, who are at very high risk of this virus."


 

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