Boris Johnson is resisting growing pressure to scrap the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas amid warnings the move could overwhelm the NHS and contribute to the loss of “many lives”.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove will resume crisis talks over the plans for up to three households to mix between December 23 and 27 with leaders of the devolved administrations on Wednesday morning.
A UK Government source acknowledged the four UK nations may take differing approaches, but insisted there would be no change in the law for the festive freedoms in England.
Instead it was said that the leaders would continue discussions on strengthening warnings, including advising people to stay local and reconsider whether they should spend Christmas with the elderly and clinically vulnerable.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier argued there is a case for reducing the planned freedoms to combat a rise in infections and indicated she could break with the four-nation approach.
She told the Scottish Parliament: “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.”
Talks began on Tuesday after two leading medical journals warned that a lessening of restrictions would “cost many lives”, and the British Medical Association (BMA) echoed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in demanding an urgent rethink.
After Gove’s first round of talks, a UK Government source said: “There are no plans to change the regulations in England.” But the source added they are “keen to maintain a UK-wide approach”.
The meeting was held 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. Another 18,450 infections were also confirmed in labs as of 9am on Tuesday.
Sir Keir had urged the Prime Minister to call an emergency meeting of the Government’s top-level Cobra committee within 24 hours to assess the situation.
In a letter to Johnson, 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 Johnson “is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.
“The Government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn,” the joint editorial said.
“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.”
The BMA backed the warning, saying the combination of a third wave in the new year and the typical winter pressures are a “recipe for catastrophe”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said ministers “keep all advice under constant review” in response to suggestions that Christmas arrangements could be restricted to three days or two households.
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.
The YouGov survey of 3856 adults on Tuesday indicated that 57% believe the plans should be dropped and that 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.