Families across the UK will be able to gather in three-household groups of any size over Christmas, the government has announced, bringing warnings from scientists that the plan will almost inevitably see a rise in the number of coronavirus cases.
The long-planned idea of “Christmas bubbles” – which ministers said would require people to make a “personal judgment” over risk for older relatives and others – was thrashed out in a meeting involving the four UK governments.
Michael Gove announces relaxation of Covid measures over Christmas – video
It will allow people to travel around freely from 23 to 27 December, irrespective of what local tier of Covid restrictions they live in. The relaxation ends on 28 December, and all areas will immediately revert to their previous Covid rules, including over new year.
There will be no social distancing for the united households, meaning people can, for example, hug relatives, while being urged to consider the risks of this for older or otherwise clinically vulnerable loved ones.
The households will be able to meet inside homes, in outdoor public spaces, and at places of worship. However, they will not be allowed to gather in pubs or other hospitality settings, and otherwise the same rules for the local tier will stay in place.
The details emerged as the UK recorded its highest daily coronavirus death toll since mid-May, with 608 people having died within 28 days of testing positive.
While the Christmas plan was agreed by all the devolved governments, some doubts remain, with the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, saying he had “hesitation” because of the extent of coronavirus infections.
Despite this, he said: “It is better that we have a common set of arrangements that give people a framework that they can manage within and act responsibly within.”
The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, also urged people to think carefully about their Christmas plans, saying: “Just because you can mix with others indoors over this time, that doesn’t mean you have to.”
A joint statement from the four governments also stressed that meeting family members “will be a personal judgment for individuals to take, mindful of the risks to themselves and others, particularly those who are vulnerable”.
Some scientists have warned strongly against encouraging families to mix indoors in winter, particularly as there is expectation of widespread vaccinations by the spring. One member of the Independent Sage group of experts said last week it could involve “having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February”.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said Covid spread most easily amid close contact indoors over long periods.
“These are exactly the conditions the government seems to be encouraging,” he said. “There is almost no advice on imaginative ways of celebrating the festivities, despite the long history of outdoor seasonal events in this country, and only the briefest mention of ways to reduce the risks indoors, for example by increasing ventilation.”
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the Christmas plan could be seen as “what we need to make it through the rest of winter”, but would bring a real risk of increased infections.
He said: “The issue is whether that increased risk is tolerable in relation to the benefits. At that time schools will be closed so there would naturally be some downward pressure on transmission.”
Giving evidence to a Commons committee shortly before the announcement, Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said a festive respite would have consequences.
“I guess I have to speak bluntly -: the virus doesn’t care if it’s Christmas,” she said. “We still have pretty high prevalence across the country. It is risky for people to mix indoors with alcohol with elderly relatives at this point in time.”The plan, finalised at a Cobra meeting chaired by the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, contains some inevitable compromises, complications and variations, and some elements still have to be finalised.
For example, if a family has three or more grown-up children, not all of them will be able to come to the parental home, unless one or more is at university – students who return at the end of term are treated as being part of the home household.
There will also be some national variations. For example, in England, house sharers will be able to disperse to different family homes as separate household bubbles. However, in Scotland they will count as the same household, and cannot.
Also, people heading to and from Northern Ireland will be granted an extra day on either side of the Christmas window, to allow for the more complex trip.
The government is also still due to produce guidance on activities such as carol singing, with some Conservative MPs lobbying for this to be allowed.
In a letter signed by the former ministers Andrea Leadsom, Tracey Crouch and Esther McVey, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, is urged to make the charitable act possible over the Christmas period.
“Carol singing is a fundamental part of the UK’s culture, an essential outdoor element of the spiritual uplift that Christmas brings and it raises millions for good causes across the country,” says the letter, seen by the Guardian. “It is vital that it is allowed to take place so that people are given hope and joy at the end of what has been a very gloomy year.”
The announcement comes a day after Boris Johnson unveiled a plan for new local tiers to come into force in England when the current lockdown restrictions end on 2 December.
This will put regions in one of three tiers of ascending strictness, with more areas expected to be placed in the top two levels. In England, after the Christmas relaxation, areas will return to the same tier on 28 December.
Johnson faces a potentially significant battle with Tory backbenchers over concerns about which areas go in which tiers, a decision set to be announced on Thursday.
Sources said the government’s “gold” Covid group, usually consisting of Matt Hancock, the health secretary, Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and other public health officials, was due to meet on Tuesday evening to come to an agreement about this process.