Boris Johnson has warned families that they must make a “personal judgment” about the risks of coronavirus for vulnerable loved ones if they form a Christmas bubble.
The Prime Minister urged the public to “think carefully” about the festive season after it was confirmed that three households could mingle from December 23-27.
The UK government and decentralized administrations have agreed on a joint plan to relax social distancing rules during the holiday season so that friends and family can hug for the first time in months.
However, a member of the government’s emergency scientific advisory group (Sage) warned that the planned easing of measures could lead to a third wave of the pandemic.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that the measures would not result in “a normal Christmas” and urged people to exercise caution, especially when meeting with the elderly or the vulnerable.
“We can’t afford to ignore caution. The virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas and we all have to be careful,” he said in a video message posted on Twitter.
“I know that this is not to be equated with a normal Christmas celebration and that it does not work for everyone. And it is up to each of us to think carefully about how we apply this temporary special arrangement.
“The virus has not gone away and families need to make personal judgments about the risk of blistering or visiting elderly relatives and vulnerable people.”
A joint statement from the four UK governments said they worked closely together to find a way for family and friends to see each other and recognized that this must be “limited and careful”.
Each Christmas bubble can meet at home, in a place of worship, or in an outdoor public place. However, the existing, more restrictive rules for hospitality and other venues will be retained throughout the period.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and member of the Advisory Group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (Nervtag) warned that easing measures would lead to increased transmission and a possible “third wave” of infections.
“In fact, this will throw fuel on the Covid fire,” the professor, who is also a wise member, told BBC2’s Newsnight on Tuesday.
He added, “With the vaccine on the way, if we are not very careful over Christmas there is a real risk that if this happens, we will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
The Christmas schedule was agreed after a Cobra meeting chaired by Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove, which brought together the Westminster government and decentralized administrations.
Despite the new measures, families and groups of friends will continue to face difficult choices and restrictions on their activities.
The bubbles must be exclusive during the five-day period, which means people cannot switch from one group to another – although children whose parents are separated are allowed to move between them.
People over 65 in nursing homes cannot join loved ones for Christmas, and in families with three children away from home, they cannot all return for the festive season.
Government figures showed an additional 608 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday, bringing the UK total to 55,838.
Meanwhile, another 11,299 laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported on Tuesday, the lowest since early October.