Boris Johnson announced a new Tier 4 on December 19, with tighter restrictions for London and parts of East and South East England, while cutting back on the planned relaxation of the rules over Christmas.
Before the rapid rise of the new Covid strain, all four UK nations had agreed that up to three households could meet in a private setting between December 23 and 27 in a temporary break from the current three-tier system.
However, the Prime Minister was forced to hold emergency talks with Cabinet ministers, as scientists confirmed that the new variant of Covid-19 was spreading rapidly in some areas.
Millions more are expected to be added to Tier 4 from Boxing Day, with Matt Hancock holding a press conference from 3pm today to confirm these plans.
Those in Tier 4 areas cannot mix with any other households over Christmas, but support bubbles can continue for those at particular risk of isolation or loneliness.
The rules came into effect on December 20 and will be reviewed on December 30.
Mr Johnson made the announcement at a press conference with Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, on December 19.
“I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year and how important it is for grandparents to see their grandchildren, and families to be together, so I know how disappointing this will be,” he said.
“Yes, Christmas this year will be different but we must be realistic. We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones so we have a better chance of protecting their lives and seeing them at future Christmases.”
The latest development came after Mr Johnson refused to rule out a third national lockdown for England – a move he had previously been deeply reluctant to contemplate.
All the latest updates for the UK rules over Christmas are below.
Christmas rules in England
You can make a Christmas bubble if you live in Tier 1, 2 or 3. You cannot make a Christmas bubble in Tier 4.
In a joint statement, the Cabinet Office previously announced the leaders of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had “endorsed a shared objective of facilitating some limited additional household bubbling for a small number of days”.
They “emphasised that the public will be advised to remain cautious, and that wherever possible people should avoid travelling and minimise social contact”.
However, this has now been modified to apply to just December 25, rather than December 23 to 27.
But what do these restrictions mean?
- Three households could meet indoors, meaning families will be able to have both sets of grandparents to stay. Under tier 4, however, you cannot meet other people indoors unless you live with them or they are part of your existing support bubble.
- Couples can join different bubbles – so if a husband and wife want to see their own families, each can do so, although they cannot switch between these. Children of divorced parents will be allowed to split their time between two bubbles.
- While you can form a bubble with up to three households, these bubbles are not permitted inside pubs or any other hospitality venues.
- Access to pubs and restaurants will still depend on the rules of your local tier system.
- Grottos are allowed to open across all tiers, except Tier 4, new government guidance has confirmed, but sitting on Santa’s lap is banned.
- Venues must put in place appropriate Covid-secure measures, and families are required to maintain social distancing from Father Christmas.
- Door-to-door carol singing is permitted as long as groups are outdoors and keep apart from each other.
- Those in Tier 3 are not able to attend school nativity plays and will have to live stream or watch a recording instead. Performances need to be within existing school bubbles, with no mixing across groups.
- In Tiers 1 and 2, audiences can attend “subject to appropriate safeguards being in place”.
- Over-65s in care homes will not be able to go home for Christmas.
- University students travelling back home at the end of the term count as part of their parents’ household.
- People flying home from red-listed countries will still have to quarantine.
Government guidelines also state that people in a bubble should:
- Limit unessential contact beyond your immediate household at least five days before you mix with other homes in your bubble
- Keep your bubble as small as possible
- Only exist in one Christmas bubble
- Not change your Christmas bubble
- Meet your Christmas bubble in private homes or your garden, places of worship, or public outdoor spaces
- Only mix with people outside your Christmas bubble outside your home following the rules in the tier you are meeting in
- Not meet socially with family or friends that you do not live within your home or garden unless they are part of your Christmas bubble
Christmas rules in Scotland
The Government said the safest way to celebrate Christmas in Scotland this year is to celebrate with your own household in your own home “and as far as possible, to keep any interaction with other households to a minimum”.
“Christmas bubbles can be formed on the 25th December to help reduce loneliness and isolation. You can meet with your bubble in a home, outdoors or in a place of worship,” the Government explained.
“You do not have to form a bubble if you do not want to – the safest way to spend Christmas is to stay in your own household, in your own home and your own local area.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged Scots to stay in their own homes at Christmas.
If people feel it is “essential” to meet with others indoors, she said this should be for one day only and not overnight.
The First Minister also suggested families should give each other vouchers for Christmas, for health and economic reasons, and warned she would tighten Christmas restrictions around the edges.
The Government has issued the following advice for those who decide to form a bubble:
- Minimise the number of people in a Christmas bubble. Eight people from three households (plus children under 12 years of age from the three households) is the legal maximum.
- Stay outside as much as possible.
- Minimise the distance you travel. The law allows you to travel within Scotland – but not to or from outside Scotland – to form a Christmas bubble. You must travel to form a bubble and return home on Christmas Day.
- Christmas bubbles apply on Christmas Day only.
Christmas rules in Wales
The majority of rules set by the Government will also be rolled out across Wales.
Wales went into full lockdown with Tier 4 restrictions from a minute after midnight on Sunday Dec 20.
Mark Drakeford had previously stated that the country would enter a new Tier 4 lockdown for three weeks following Christmas. However, the restrictions were brought forward to Dec 20 following concerns over a new strain of the virus.
The Welsh Labour leader said a “sustained rise in coronavirus” meant that the country would have to move into its highest level of restrictions. His announcement came after a meeting with the first ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as Michael Gove, on the new strain of coronavirus.
All non-essential retail, close contact services, gyms and leisure centres and hospitality closed at “end of trading” on Saturday Dec 19.
Restrictions over Christmas will also be tightened: the five-day relaxation period has been scrapped and only two households will be able to celebrate together on Christmas Day, and all hospitality premises will have to close their doors by 6pm on Christmas Day.
This harsh limitation would be made into law, the Welsh Government confirmed.
Christmas rules in Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed that Christmas bubbles should be limited to one day.
Previously, people from up to three households were allowed to congregate together in “social bubbles” between December 23 and 27, unlike the rest of the UK.
Ministers met remotely on Sunday evening, Dec 20, to discuss the impact of the new coronavirus variant and concluded that the relaxing of restrictions over Christmas no longer a possibility.
There will, however, be some flexibility on which day (between 23 and 27 Dec) that people can come together, to accommodate people working on Christmas Day.
A six-week lockdown is still planned to come into force from December 26.
The first week of the measures will see the toughest lockdown yet in Northern Ireland, with a form of curfew in operation from 8pm, shops closed from that time and all indoor and outdoor gatherings prohibited until 6am.
Non-essential retail will close throughout the six weeks, as will close contact services. Hospitality outlets will be limited to takeaway services.
Organised sport will also be banned, with elite sport included in the prohibition for the first week.
The latest rules in Northern Ireland are here.
Can I travel between tiers over Christmas?
A cross-border travel ban between Scotland and England has been in place in recent weeks and Nicola Sturgeon has now extended that ban over Christmas, saying she was “very, very sorry” but it was needed to prevent any more of the new strain entering the country.
Wales, too, has re-entered a national lockdown that bans incoming and outgoing travel.
As for individual countries, each nation has different regulations once travellers arrive at their destination. In England, you should follow the rules of the tier in the area you are visiting.
Residents are encouraged to keep their travel local, reduce their number of journeys and avoid leaving their village, town or city area.
Walking and cycling is also recommended, with people advised to avoid public transport at busy times.
You should not leave a Tier 4 area unless for permitted reasons, such as work, education, caring responsibilities, to visit a support bubble or for medical reasons, and someone from a Tier 1, 2 or 3 area should not enter a Tier 4 zone except for the same reasons.
In Scotland, you should also follow the travel advice for the level you are in during the relaxation period. For example, visitors staying in a level 3 area cannot go on an outing to a level 2 area.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is negotiating an agreement with Ireland. This suggests travel rules may be the same in every part of the British Isles.
Can I travel abroad over Christmas?
Britain was hit with a travel ban on December 20 by a host of European countries to halt the spread of the new, more infectious coronavirus strain.
The ban on passenger flights from the UK threatens to disrupt the festive travel plans of an estimated 250,000 Britons.
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland are among 15 European countries to close their borders to flights and most trains and ferries from the UK, but the ban could be extended to the entire bloc.
The EU are holding an emergency meeting today, Dec 21, to discuss a blanket ban that could cost UK consumers £400 million in cancelled bookings.
Travelling against official government advice is not illegal, but most tour operators will not offer trips to destinations which the Foreign Office (FCO) deems unsafe. In a pandemic, that’s just about everywhere – and it does make travel insurance complicated.
If you choose to visit a country to which the FCO advises against travel without invalidating your insurance – here’s what you need to know.