There are “no plans” to tighten the Christmas coronavirus rules for England, a UK government source has said.
Urgent talks between Michael Gove and the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland broke up on Tuesday without agreement on a new strategy amid a fresh spike in cases.
The discussions will continue on Wednesday with politicians under growing pressure to reconsider the five-day relaxation of the rules between December 23 and 27 in response to fears it could allow the pandemic to spiral.
But a UK government source said after the “constructive call” that “there are no plans to change the regulations in England” which allow up to three households to mix.
“We’re keen to maintain a UK-wide approach and will have further discussions with devolved administrations tomorrow morning,” the source said.
The comments suggest the “four nations” approach agreed across the UK may fray in the coming days.
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.
But her Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford said the current plans were a “hard-won agreement” and he would “not lightly put it aside” ahead of the first meeting.
The talks took place 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 re-think.
PA Media reported that leaders are trying to agree on new safety warnings amid suggestions from officials and ministers that people should be more careful than the rules allow.
The proposals being discussed by leaders could include guidance for people to consider whether they should meet elderly or clinically-vulnerable loved ones and to stress that the rules are a limit and not a target.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “The four nations call was a good opportunity to review the position on Christmas and discuss whether the messaging or guidance requires to be reinforced.”
A spokeswoman for Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said they would discuss the situation with medical and scientific advisers before updating Stormont on Thursday.
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.
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 3,856 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.
The relaxation of regulations looms as London, much of Essex and part of Hertfordshire enter the strictest Tier 3 restrictions on Wednesday.