The UK has spent the last couple of days waiting to find out whether Boris Johnson might reluctantly turn families’ Christmas plans on their heads amid rising Covid-19 rates.
Not only have coronavirus infections risen by almost 29% in a week, but London – along with large parts of Essex and Hertfordshire – have been plunged into the strictest tier 3 restrictions.
According to the BBC, 34m people in England are now living under “very high alert” coronavirus rules.
All of this led to medics and scientists seriously urging the PM to scrap his plan to allow people to form a three-household Christmas bubble between December 23 and 27, saying it could lead to a third wave of the virus.
But on Wednesday Johnson confirmed the government’s plans for festive socialising would go ahead, albeit alongside new advice to have a “little Christmas”.
So how did we end up here, with the public essentially left to decide for themselves the safest way to celebrate Christmas?
With just over a month to go until Christmas Day, Johnson – in collaboration with national leaders – laid out his plans for the festive season.
Under the agreed system, coronavirus restrictions would be eased between December 23 and 27 to allow three households to come together to form a Christmas bubble, with travel restrictions also relaxed to allow people to get home.
This decision was made despite numerous warnings from experts about the dangers of relaxing the Covid rules over Christmas.
In a video on Twitter, the PM said the “special dispensation” would allow families to reunite.
However, he urged people to think twice about who they decided to bubble-up with – especially elderly or vulnerable people.
“Tis the season to be jolly, but tis also the season to be jolly careful,” he said.
Despite the PM urging caution, scientists wasted little time in warning the Christmas bubble plan was “throwing fuel on the Covid fire” and could lead to a third wave of coronavirus.
Professor Andrew Hayward – a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – made it very clear he was less than impressed with the idea.
He told BBC2’s Newsnight: “I think it will definitely lead to increased transmission. It is likely to lead to a third wave of infection, with hospitals being overrun, and more unnecessary deaths.
“We are still in a country where we have got high levels of infection with Covid, particularly in young people. Bringing them together for hours, let alone days, with elderly relatives, I think, is a recipe for regret for many families.”
Hayward added that with vaccines on the way “we are really in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on this one”.
England’s second lockdown ended, with the vast majority of the country placed into strict tier 2 and tier 3 restrictions. Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly made it into tier 1, which still allows mixing indoors with people from outside your household.
The first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine were handed out to the public.
It was on Monday that the debate about Christmas really began to hot up after it was announced that London – along with large parts of Essex and Hertfordshire – was set to enter tier 3 restrictions amid rising coronavirus rates.
Amid questions about whether the government would push ahead with its plan at “any cost”, health secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged the potential dangers of meeting up, advising people to try and self-isolate if they plan to meet up with elderly relatives.
Meanwhile, Professor Christina Pagel – a member of the Independent Sage group – told HuffPost UK that the government must make it clear that “could does not mean should” when it comes to Christmas.
“I think what the government needs to do now – given that it has already said what the rules are for Christmas and people have made plans accordingly – is to give the messaging that, just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should,” she said.
Chris Hopson, chief of NHS Providers, said that a bump in cases in the US following Thanksgiving at the end of November should serve as a warning about Christmas.
“Over the last fortnight, as of yesterday in the States, the number of cases has gone up by 25 per cent, the number of hospitalisations has gone up by 20 per cent in a fortnight, and the number of deaths has gone up by 60 per cent in a fortnight,” he told the BBC.
“That gives you pretty clear evidence that we already knew that when you increase social contacts, then surprise, surprise, you get further virus spread and you get a higher death rate.”
On Tuesday, ministers and devolved leaders met to discuss Christmas freedoms amid fears about the impact relaxing coronavirus rules could have.
It followed a joint warning from the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal that allowing people to form Christmas bubbles could lead to a spike in Covid-19 infections, leaving the NHS overwhelmed and the UK in the midst of a third wave.
That brings us to Wednesday – just a week before people across the UK had planned to travel home for Christmas.
Despite speculation the PM’s Christmas bubble plan might have been popped altogether, Johnson instead confirmed that people would still be allowed to socialise with two other households over the festive period.
“We don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans,” he told MPs. Instead, he urged the public to be “extremely cautious” in their behaviour.
Johnson added: “It’s absolutely vital that people should – at this very, very tricky time – exercise a high degree of personal responsibility, especially when they come into contact with elderly people, and avoid contact with elderly people wherever possible.”
In short – no-one is going to stop you forming a three-household bubble, but it’s down to you, rather than the government, to decide if that’s actually safe.
However, it quickly transpired that this would not actually be the case in Wales, where authorities confirmed that Christmas socialising would be limited to two households by law.
A third household will only be allowed to join the bubble if it’s someone who lives alone.
While Scotland has not imposed any additional rules, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that her “strong recommendation” was for people to “stay within your own household and your own home”.
Later on Wednesday, Johnson also warned the public to have a smaller Christmas than the rules allow.
“A smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas and a shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas,” he said.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, he advised people to reduce contact with others from this Friday and cut down the time spent with others over Christmas.
Between December 23 and 27, people will legally be allowed to travel across the country – and between nations – to visit family.
But it’s yet to be seen how many people will heed politicians’ recent caution about limiting their contacts to an even smaller bubble. Others have asked how likely people will be to change their plans so close to Christmas – especially those who have already paid for train or plane tickets.