Congestion at British ports largely caused by Covid chaos in China means many Christmas toys, gifts and stocking fillers are now unlikely to make it on time with businesses hemorrhaging £1million or more because shipments have been delayed by months.
The British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA), the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) are all calling for the Government to intervene at Felixstowe and Southampton and ‘save the festive season’ by getting more cargo into the UK.
The industry bodies want an inquiry into the problems and are calling on Boris Johnson to clear containers of PPE clogging up the docks and bring back more staff off furlough to ease congestion.
Retailers have said that toys, games, puzzles and dolls ordered from China in August and September have still not arrived after delays in Asia and problems unloading in Britain leading to many containers being dumped in Zeebrugge, Belgium.
Apple’s new £550 Airpods Max may not arrive at many homes until after Easter while the £450 Sony PS5 console is sold out at Currys PC World, Argos and on Amazon. Many kitchen gadgets such as food processors, coffee machines, kettles, toaster and utensils are delayed well into January.
To make matters worse a container of goods from Qingdao, China to Felixstowe, Suffolk is now at $10,000 (£7,500) per load – four times the usual rate. The problems have led to knock-on delays at Dover, where 2,000 extra trucks per day are crossing the channel with containers because driving them in is the only way to get to the UK for Christmas.
Lorries queue for The Port of Dover (pictured this week) along the A20 in Kent as the Dover TAP (Traffic Access Protocol) is implemented due to high volumes of freight traffic caused in large part because of problems at container ports
Stocking fillers such as the Grow-a-Sloth and Liar!Liar! Pants on Fire games are sold out and out of stock because of port problems
Retailers wanting more shipments of Dinkum Dolls due in the Autumn, are now not likely to be delivered until January 7 at the earliest
Leeds-based toy designer Boxer Gifts, which manufacturers its products in China, says it will lose £1million this year because of stock delays with their Christmas order not due until December 28.
Three key issues causing delays at British ports
Today’s problems at ports including Felixstowe, Southampton, London Gateway and Dover are being caused by a series of problems occurring at once which are not all unique to the UK.
A new lorry booking system has been causing disruption at Felixstowe in recent weeks, but trade body Logistics UK played down this issue today, saying the new arrangements were ‘bedding in’.
Industry insiders say there are three key issues behind the chaos:
COVID – shipping container shortage
The system for shipping goods around the world stopped working properly when economies shut down and reopened at different times as they dealt with Covid.
This led to shipping firms falling behind when it came to retrieving empty containers from European ports and taking them back to factories in Asia.
The container shortage is being exacerbated by a lack of staff across the global supply chain – including sailors, hauliers and warehouse workers – due to people falling ill or having to quarantine.
The problems caused by Covid have been compounded by a surge in demand caused by:
BREXIT – customs and stockpiling
If the UK leaves the EU with no deal, then at the end of the transition period tariffs will be applied to imported goods according to World Trade Organisation rules.
Companies are therefore stockpiling goods out of fear of having to pay tariffs, or because they are concerned that new customs procedures after Brexit will delay imports.
There is always a spike in demand for goods around Christmas, which is exacerbating problems.
Managing director Thomas O’Brien said products they sell to retailers, including Paperchase, are stuck in Europe after failing to dock at Felixstowe.
He told the BBC: ‘Some of the ships are bypassing the UK and tipping off at European ports, but others are just slowing down because they’ve got nowhere to unload,’ he said.
‘Various games and stocking-filler toys such as Grow-a-Sloth are hugely popular, but we’ve had stock outages for months because shipments are delayed and that’s costing us sales.
‘More importantly it’s reducing availability for consumers to find fun gifts. There’s less about.’
Sheffield toy shop owner Hellen Stirling-Baker says 40 per cent of her annual turnover is tied up in a £20,000 shipment of Dinkum Dolls due in the Autumn, now not likely to be delivered until January 7.
She said: ‘I just received an order today which I placed three weeks ago, and only part [of it] has come. The rest is stuck in ports,” she said. “Demand has been really high but stock levels are low’.
For more than a week Dover has been choked with 24-hour queues with 2,000 more lorries than usual crossing between Britain and Europe every day.
Emergency measures have been imposed on roads across Kent to try to manage a tidal wave of trucks now believed to be at 12,000 per day or more.
And the scenes have been seen at other ports around the UK, including Felixstowe and Southampton, as well as at ports in France as firms race to make deliveries in time for Christmas.
The log-jam at container ports means many hauliers are switching to using ferries and the Channel Tunnel to make their delivery targets. Around 2,000 extra trucks have been crossing through the Channel Tunnel every day, mostly into the UK, on top of the 10,000 already crossing in an average 24-hour period.
The British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA) says Boris Johnson’s Government needs to act today.
A spokesman said: ‘We would urge the government to help at this crucial time for business, to save the festive season and alleviate blockages now ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU’.
But a spokesman for the Department for Transport (DfT) said: “This is not a problem unique to the UK, with ports around the globe experiencing similar container capacity issues. The government is working closely with the freight industry to work through the challenges some of our ports are facing. “Ports are employing more staff, as well as working with hauliers to improve container collection and with shipping lines to maximise efficient utilisation of port capacity. We will do everything we can to resolve the situation as quickly as possible’.
The gifts that might NOT arrive this Christmas: Deliveries of Barbies, Scalextric and Peppa Pig toys are hit by delays after Covid supply chain issues causes chaos at Britain’s ports
Britain is facing a Christmas gift shortage with chaos at ports meaning deliveries of popular products including Barbies, Micro-Scalextric and Peppa Pig toys may not arrive before December 25. Go-karts, scooters and Paw Patrol merchandise are among the other children’s presents held up at ports due to a global shipping crisis. Gifts such as Apple Airpod earphones and Sony PS5s are also increasingly hard to find as a result of supply chain problems from Covid-hit China, Vietnam and Japan
Britain is facing a Christmas gift shortage with chaos at ports meaning deliveries of popular products including Barbies, Micro-Scalextric and Peppa Pig toys may not arrive before December 25.
Go-karts, scooters and Paw Patrol merchandise are among the other children’s presents held up at ports due to a global shipping crisis, retailers said today.
Must-have gifts such as Apple Airpod earphones and Sony PS5s are also increasingly hard to find as a result of supply chain problems from Covid-hit China, Vietnam and Japan.
Gary Grant, of The Entertainer, Britain’s largest independent toy retailer, said deliveries are now three weeks behind schedule with just 15 days until Christmas Day.
Meanwhile, Derek Crookes, of the Toy Retailers Association, said: ‘There is still stock on shelves but some lines may face shortages.
‘In previous Christmases some toys have run out because they are really, really popular but this year a lot of different lines are running low and might run out entirely before new stock arrives in January.’
The authorities in Kent have been forced to implement the so-called Dover TAP, short for Traffic Access Protocol, to control traffic levels and speed.
Kent County Council says this is designed to prevent port-bound traffic from affecting the local road network and the A20 through Dover town.
The system also allows for lorries to queue on the M20 near junction 11 whilst they wait being able to board at the Eurotunnel terminal.
A spike in imports due to the Covid-19 pandemic, couple with the normal Christmas rise in demand for imports and stockpiling triggered by fears of a no-deal Brexit have led to bottlenecks.
The problems have brought grim warnings that many retailers and manufacturers will face shortages of stock, hitting supplies of Christmas gifts including toys.
White goods, homeware and building supplies are also reportedly being held up by the congestion, while carmaker Honda has temporarily closed its Swindon plant due to difficulty getting parts.
Desperate retailers, supermarkets and department stores are still waiting for their Christmas stock as chaos at UK ports threatens major disruption to festive deliveries.
Customs delays in processing ships at Felixstowe and a string other ports risks a shortage of consumer products – including toys – with the result some may not arrive until January.
One specialist Christmas products supplier last night complained that vital festive stock was buried in a mountain of hundreds of containers.
There are also fears that food imports could be left to rot as a result of the disruption, while companies supplying supermarkets claim the delays are adding huge costs and threaten to push up prices.
And there are concerns that factories will be forced to follow the example of car maker Honda and suspend production because of a shortage of imported parts.
The problems appear to be the result of a perfect storm caused by a combination of the impact of Covid-19 and stockpiling ahead of the Brexit deadline of December 31.
Industry leaders fear the introduction of new Customs checks in the new year will fuel the crisis without urgent action to tackle the bottlenecks.
Some retailers say that as few as one in five shipments due in September and October have arrived, which has hit supplies of scooters, Barbie dolls and other toys before Christmas.
High street chains are reporting shortages of white goods such as washing machines and fridges, while building merchants are running out of supplies, such as power tools, screws, timber and roof tiles.
At the same time, shipping companies are imposing massive ‘congestion charges’, in some cases running to hundreds of thousands of pounds, on British importers because of the delays. This is to cover the dead time ships spend in ports rather than getting back out to sea.
So can I see my mum or not? Families left in limbo by last-minute Christmas bubble changes in Wales and Scotland demand urgent answers… so what ARE the new rules?
Confusion has been cast over Christmas plans weeks after Britons were told Covid-19 restrictions would be relaxed to allow limited mixing over the festive period.
The relaxation was thrown into jeopardy by rising infection rates and warnings that the freedoms would cause a spiralling death toll and the NHS to be overwhelmed.
The laws to permit people to mix to an extent over Christmas stayed the same, but rifts in the advice across the four nations have been appearing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised people to have a ‘merry little Christmas’, saying the three household bubble law were ‘maximums, not targets to aim for’.
He said the laws would remain but urged people to delay seeing elderly relatives not yet vaccinated, and that a ‘smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas’.
Now, Wales has said only two households – rather than three – should form a bubble, and it will have full lockdown from December 28 for at least three weeks.
Scots were told by Nicola Sturgeon that meetings should be outdoors but those inside should only be for one day, and people should not stay overnight.
In Northern Ireland, people were urged to take ‘all and every precaution’ when they come together, and further restrictions cannot be ruled out once relaxations end.
Here, we look at some of the key points for each of the nations this Christmas:
How many people can you have in your Christmas bubble?
ENGLAND – THREE (LAW)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said ‘we don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans’
The regulations allow for a five-day ‘Christmas window’ from December 23 to 27 when people can form exclusive bubbles of up to three households across the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said ‘we don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans’ but issued a warning for people to be ‘extremely cautious’ over their actions.
He said that individuals should ‘exercise a high degree of personal responsibility’, particularly when considering meeting elderly people who have not been vaccinated.
Mr Johnson added that the UK governments are ‘asking you to think hard and in detail about the days ahead and whether you can do more to protect yourself and others’.
He said the laws would be kept the same, but ‘we all want to send the same message’ that a ‘smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas’.
WALES – TWO (ADVICE) / THREE (LAW)
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford changed his advice for the public in Wales
Mr Johnson told the Commons that there was ‘unanimous agreement’ across the four nations ‘that we should proceed in principle with the existing regulations’.
But First Minister Mark Drakeford yesterday changed his advice for the Welsh public, despite not appearing to be changing the law for Christmas in Wales.
He said the new position is that ‘only two households should come together to form an exclusive Christmas bubble’ over the five-day period.
‘The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus,’ he said. ‘None of us wants to be ill this Christmas. And we don’t want to give coronavirus to our close family or friends.’
Wales will then go into full lockdown from December 28 to last an initial three weeks.
All non-essential retail will close on the evening of Christmas Eve and all hospitality from 6pm on Christmas Day, but restrictions for household mixing will only come in after the five days of relaxed measures at Christmas.
SCOTLAND – ONE (ADVICE) / THREE (LAW)
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her ‘strong recommendation’ is that people do not mix households over the period
Nicola Sturgeon said that her ‘strong recommendation’ is that people do not mix households over the period in what is ‘unequivocally the safest way to spend Christmas’.
The Scottish First Minister said that meetings should take place outdoors if possible but if it was ‘essential’ to meet inside then she advised people to meet for only one day and to not stay overnight.
Ms Sturgeon urged people against travelling between areas of high and low infection rates and asked people to consider ‘postponing’ Christmas.
‘The reality is that this Christmas simply can’t be normal. But we have every reason to hope that next year’s will be much more normal,’ she added.
The Scottish Government previously said people should keep the numbers within a bubble as low as possible and minimise the length of contact between different households in the bubble.
Scotland has also said that ‘different people in a household should not pick their own bubble’.
NORTHERN IRELAND – THREE (LAW)
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster said people needed to take ‘all and every precaution’ when they come together
First Minister Arlene Foster said people needed to take ‘all and every precaution’ when they come together at Christmas but could not rule out further restrictions in the days afterwards.
Health Minister Robin Swann is due to bring proposals for further Covid-19 restrictions to the Stormont executive yesterday but Mrs Foster said she did not expect a recommendation for new measures to be introduced before the festive break.
Mrs Foster said she noted the more stringent advice on household mixing from her counterpart in Wales but added: ‘I am not going to prejudge what the minister is going to bring to us but undoubtedly we will have something to say tomorrow and over the next few days.’
Can I travel between the nations, such as from England to Scotland?
Yes. You are allowed to travel between England’s tiers and the four nations of the UK to meet your Christmas bubble.
However Nicola Sturgeon has advised people against travelling between areas of high and low infection rates.
This means someone travelling up to Scotland from London, a Tier Three area, would be discouraged from doing so, although they would not be breaking the law.
Will the lockdown in Wales cut short Christmas plans?
No. The lockdown will start on December 28, one day after the Christmas bubble period ends.
Should I follow the rules of the tier I travel to or the tier I’ve come from when forming my Christmas bubble?
In England, if travelling to join your bubble you should follow the tier rules of your destination.
In Scotland, you must stay with your bubble where they are hosting you and you should follow the travel advice for the level you are in.
For example, people being hosted in a level 3 area cannot go on an outing to a level 2 area.
Can I travel to Tier 3 areas?
Yes, there is nothing in the law stopping this. However, Boris Johnson has asked people to avoid travelling from a high prevalence area to a low prevalence area.
What is a Christmas bubble and when can I join one?
People across the UK will be allowed to form an exclusive Christmas bubble made up of people from no more than three households between December 23 and 27.
This law applies across the whole of the UK. Christmas bubbles can only meet in private homes and gardens, places of worship and public outdoor spaces.
Should I now try to cut down my Christmas bubble?
Yes. Although the law states you can have three households in your bubble, Boris Johnson has advised people to cut the number of people and days of socialising if posssible.
Can I form a Christmas bubble if I am clinically extremely vulnerable?
Yes, but people are warned this involves greater risks.
If someone decides to join a bubble they should take extra precautions, while others within the group should be extra vigilant in the days before getting together.
Can I visit elderly relatives?
People have been advised to avoid visiting elderly relatives unless they have had their coronavirus vaccine. But there is nothing in law stating this.
Can I be in more than one Christmas bubble?
No. Christmas bubbles will be fixed for the period they are permitted. You are also not allowed to change your Christmas bubble once it is formed.
Family in Wales scrap plans for Christmas after seeing hospital staff ‘on their knees’
Geoff Leyshon, 74, from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, said his entire family made a decision a week ago to scrap their plans after seeing staff at nearby Prince Charles Hospital ‘on their knees’.
Geoff Leyshon, 74, from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, said his entire family made a decision a week ago to scrap their plans
He said: ‘To us, to all of them and me, we thought it was just common sense. We were told that we can do it… but we felt, no we can’t!
‘I appreciate the difficulty, the mental stress, all that goes with it.’
Mr Leyshon added that it would take ‘a lot of courage’ for politicians to change their mind this close to Christmas.
Is there a limit to how many people can be in a Christmas bubble?
Cabinet Office guidance only stipulates that the bubble should not include people from more than three households.
However, it highlights that the more people someone sees, the more likely they are to catch or spread Covid-19, and asks the public to be mindful of risks before agreeing to form a bubble.
Do you have to self-isolate before forming a bubble?
Not by law, but Boris Johnson said yesterday that people were being asked to ‘reduce the number of people you are in contact with to the lowest possible number’ in the five days before Christmas.
Will we have to social distance within Christmas bubbles?
Social distancing will not be necessary in bubbles, but people will be advised to exercise restraint and judgment if they plan to mix with vulnerable friends or family.
It means friends and family will have the chance to hug for the first time in months.
What happens if I’m self-isolating?
If you have Covid symptoms or are required to self-isolate then you must not join a Christmas bubble.
If someone in a Christmas bubble tests positive for coronavirus or develops symptoms between December 23 and 27, or up to 48 hours after the bubble last met, then all bubble members must self-isolate.
Can I be in a different Christmas bubble from people I normally live with?
Cabinet Office guidance says you can choose to form a different Christmas bubble from the people you live with normally.
To prevent virus transmission within your normal household and between bubbles, people should try to stay with another member of their Christmas bubble between December 23 and 27 where possible.
Extra precautions such as cleaning surfaces and door handles and letting in fresh air after someone has visited your household are also advised.
Can I still meet people outside of my Christmas bubble?
You will be able to meet people not in your Christmas bubble outside your home according to the rules in the tier you are staying in.
The tier system of restrictions applies to England, with rules in other parts of the UK varying.
Can I stay overnight with my Christmas bubble?
Yes, by law. If someone is in your Christmas bubble, you can visit each other’s homes and stay overnight, including in private rented accommodation.
However, Boris Johnson has advised people against staying overnight to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus between each other.
When am I allowed to travel to and from my Christmas bubble?
You should only travel to meet your bubble and return home between December 23 and 27.
‘For us it’s just too much of a risk’, says daughter who feared parents would worry
Katherine Carter, 37, from Southampton, has seen her own plans change as recently as yesterday due to her parents’ concerns.
She described the Government’s relaxation of restrictions as a ‘nice thought’ before adding ‘for us it’s just too much of a risk’.
Katherine Carter, 37, from Southampton, has seen her own plans change as recently as yesterday due to her parents’ concerns
She continued: ‘I was concerned that they (parents) would be worried, and wanted to know what they were thinking.
‘As soon as I mentioned it they confirmed they were worried and thought it best to change plans, which I agreed sounded sensible.
‘We’re happy to have a quiet Christmas if it helps to keep them safe and less stressed.’
For those heading to or from Northern Ireland, they may travel on December 22 and 28 December, but should only meet their Christmas bubble between December 23 and 27.
Travel outside these periods is only allowed in exceptional circumstances, for example if your are required to self-isolate.
People are advised to avoid unnecessary stops on their journey and not to share a car with people not in their household.
If crossing borders, travellers should read the local coronavirus guidance as different rules may apply.
Does my support bubble count as one household still?
According to the Cabinet Office, existing support bubbles will count as one household contributing to the three household Christmas bubble limit.
A support bubble in England is defined as a support network between a single adult household, or a one adult household with one or more people aged under 18 on June 12, and one other household of any size.
Rules on household bubbles are different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with full Christmas guidance still pending from those nations.
Can childcare bubbles continue?
In England, a childcare bubble is where one household links with one other household to provide informal childcare to children aged 13 or under.
Between December 23 and 27 you can continue to use a childcare bubble but ‘only if reasonably necessary’ and ‘where there are no reasonable alternatives’, Cabinet Office guidance states.
If meeting socially during this period, the two households should form a Christmas bubble, with one further household permitted to join the grouping.
Again, guidance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may differ.
What happens to children whose parents are separated?
Children who are aged under 18 can be part of both their parents’ Christmas bubbles if the adults do not live together and separate groupings are formed.
Nobody else is allowed to be in two bubbles.
Can care home residents join Christmas bubbles?
In England, visits outside of care homes should only be considered for residents ‘of working age’.
A care home resident that is allowed to leave, subject to a home’s agreement and individual risk assessments, may form a bubble with one other household only and should not form a three-household Christmas bubble at any point.
If a care home resident does join a household for Christmas they should maintain social distance and take steps to minimise risks.
Can students returning from university join Christmas bubbles?
Students heading home for the holidays will be considered part of the household they return to.
Growing concerns over health of mother, 71, prompt son to cancel
Marlene Kayley, 71
Marlene Kayley, 71, from Lancashire, had planned to see her son but his growing concerns over his mother’s health prompted him to cancel.
‘At first they thought they would form a bubble of three families,’ said Mrs Kayley of her son and his fiance.
‘The parents of my son’s fiance (in their 60s) said they didn’t want to risk socialising over Christmas so wouldn’t see them.
‘My son then expressed his concern that if he was asymptomatic he’d never live with himself if he infected me and I died.’
The decision was made just two weeks ago – and Mrs Kayley said she understood her son’s choice but remained disappointed.
‘After the year we’ve had, starting with not being able to see him on Mother’s Day… I can’t say I’ve got used to any of the upset caused by all the restrictions.
‘Yes I’m disappointed and yes I understand my son’s fears.’
Can my bubble have Christmas dinner together at the pub?
No. Under the rules Christmas bubbles cannot meet up at indoor settings such as pubs, hotels, retail businesses, theatres or restaurants.
In England, rules on who you can and cannot meet will still depend on which tier of restrictions a venue is in.
Can I stay in a hotel during Christmas?
In England, you can stay in a hotel during the Christmas period, including in a tier three area, but only on your own or with members of your household.
When do I have to decide my bubble by?
The Government have advised people to decide on their bubble by this Friday. However, this is not enshrined in law – it will not be illegal to change it.
Will we face tougher restrictions in January to make up for this?
We do not yet know. It has been speculated that a further circuit-breaker might be needed in January or February if transmission rates rise during Christmas.
The Prime Minister has urged families to still be ‘jolly careful’, warning against ‘a big blowout Christmas’ that could risk another lockdown in January.
Will the tiered restrictions still apply over the Christmas bubble period?
Yes. The tiered restrictions largely still do apply. For example, pubs and restaurants in Tier 3 areas will not be open for business as usual over Christmas.
What do the experts make of it all?
Two top medical journals have called for the Government to call off its ‘rash’ decision.
In a rare joint editorial, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal said the Government ‘is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives’.
They added that the Government had been too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn, and restrictions were needed over Christmas ahead of a ‘likely third wave’.
Can I go to the Boxing Day sales and celebrate New Year?
Boris Johnson has urged people to avoid crowds in the Boxing Day sales, adding that ‘no one should be gathering in large groups to see in the New Year’.
When will the situation have improved?
Boris Johnson said: ‘With the vaccine, and all the other measures that we are taking, we do know that things will be better in this country by Easter.’
One-in-four Britons will break Christmas Covid rules despite Chris Whitty’s grim warning that mixing will KILL – as Boris says decide your bubbles and start pre-isolating TODAY, avoid Boxing Day sales and DON’T see elderly relatives
The advice offered by Boris Johnson on having a safe ‘little’ Christmas this year
One-in-four Britons say they will break Christmas Covid rules, despite Chris Whitty’s grim warning that mixing households over the festive season could lead to a spike in deaths.
England’s chief medical officer delivered the stark warning last night that Christmas mixing will lead to more coronavirus deaths in the new year, as he declared ‘this is not a moment to relax at all’.
Professor Whitty bluntly stated that the virus will kill more Britons due to the looser rules over the five-day break between December 23 and 27, and likened the situation to driving at 70mph on an icy road – saying that while it was legal, it was not ‘sensible’.
But as he delivered the grim message, it was last night revealed in a poll that 22 per cent of Britons believe it is acceptable to break the rules ‘slightly’, by forming a Christmas bubble with four households, rather than the permitted three.
The results from the YouGov survey, for the Times, said 33 per cent would also be willing to break the rules by having an extra day with family members – beyond the Government’s four day window.
The poll results, from a survey earlier this week, were released hours after Professor Whitty gave his bleak prediction about the impact of the loosened Christmas restrictions.
Striking a sombre tone alongside Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference last night, he said: ‘Any kind of period where people come together in groups that otherwise wouldn’t meet leads to an increase in risks and that will lead to an increase in hospitalisations and deaths.
‘This is the equivalent of saying these are icy and treacherous conditions… just because you can doesn’t mean you should… This is not a moment to relax at all. Quite the reverse.’
It comes as daily coronavirus infections yesterday spiked by 50 per cent in the UK, with health chiefs recording 25,161 cases in the last 24 hours.
Covid-19 deaths have also risen 14 per cent week-on-week, with 612 new victims reported today compared to 533 a week ago.
Despite Professor Whitty’s gloomy message, Mr Johnson urged Britons to have a ‘merry little Christmas’ with the emphasis on ‘little’, as he denied that the plan for UK-wide bubbles is descending into chaos. The PM said all the home nations were sending the ‘same message’ that ‘smaller is safer’.
He warned that the coronavirus case numbers were much higher than hoped when the festive easing had been designed – but insisted the law would be kept the same to avoid ‘criminalising’ families who were desperate to see each other.
The PM said the permission for three households to mix over five days was a ‘maximum’, advised people to decide their bubbles by Friday and isolate beforehand if possible, as well as avoiding elderly relatives. He also cautioned against travelling from high infection areas to lower ones, staying overnight with family, and flocking to high street sales on Boxing Day.
Quoting the classic festive tune, Mr Johnson said: ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas but this year, alas, preferably a very little Christmas.’ But the united front across the UK was in tatters tonight as Wales announced that it will change the law to say only two households can mix between December 23 and 27 – as opposed to three in England.
The Government tonight released its official Christmas guidance, which recommends families halt all ‘unnecessary social contact outside your immediate household’ as soon as they can and for at least five days before they meet in their bubble.
It also suggests the over-70s and those who are ‘clinically vulnerable’ consider if they need to be in a bubble at all.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon said gatherings should only happen on one day, people should not stay overnight unless ‘unavoidable’, and pleaded with Scots who have not already organised a bubble to avoid doing so.
In bruising clashes with Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs earlier, the Labour leader accused Mr Johnson of ignoring scientists’ advice on Christmas.
But he shot back by accusing Sir Keir of not having the ‘guts’ to come out explicitly in favour of cancelling the easing. The latest round of talks between Michael Gove, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford of Wales and Northern Ireland’s Arlene Foster took place this morning.
No10 had been braced for Scotland to take a tougher line, after Ms Sturgeon said that she would not hesitate to break ranks – suggesting the length of the relaxation and the three-household limit might need to be reduced.
The Government’s Christmas travel tsar Sir Peter Hendy told the Transport Select Committee this morning that people should ‘be careful’, ‘stay local’, and ‘book public transport early’. But he suggested that three-quarters of the public are not intending to travel, and predicted there will not be nightmare scenes.
Professor Whitty bluntly stated that the virus will kill more Britons due to the looser rules and likened the situation to driving at 70mph on an icy road – saying that while it was legal, it was not ‘sensible’. He struck a sombre tone alongside the PM
The UK-wide policy approach was in tatters as Nicola Sturgeon (left) and Mark Drakeford (right) issued starkly different advice to Boris Johnson on families gathering at Christmas
Majority of Britons believe Christmas SHOULD be cancelled, poll finds
The majority of Britons believe Christmas should be cancelled this year amid plans to loosen restrictions over the festive period, a poll has found.
A YouGov poll of 3,856 adults found 57 per cent think the current rules should be maintained over Christmas – instead of allowing bubbles of up to three households to mix.
Tory MPs are increasingly nervous about the UK-wide proposals, after respected medical journals the BMJ and HSJ warned the ‘rash’ move will ‘cost lives’ and must be axed.
Health committee chair Jeremy Hunt said the government should be listening to the concerns ‘very very carefully’.
And the British public appear to agree – as just 31 per cent said they wanted the plan for ‘bubbles’ to go ahead. Separate Ipsos MORI research found 49 per cent thought the rules were not strict enough.
Mr Johnson said it would have been ‘frankly inhuman’ to ‘ban Christmas’ altogether – pointing out that the current restrictions on civil liberties might be the most severe since Cromwell’s time.
Referencing days of wrangling between the UK nations over the Christmas bubbles, he said: ‘We’ve decided that the overall situation is alas worse, more challenging than we hoped when we first set the rules.
‘While it would not be right to criminalise people who made plans and simply want to spend time with their loved ones, we’re collectively, across the UK, governments at every level, asking you to think hard and in detail about the days ahead.
‘We’re keeping the laws the same but we all want to send the same message: a smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas and a shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas.
‘When we say three households can meet on five days I want to stress these are maximums and not targets to aim for.
‘It’s always going to be safest to minimise the number of people you meet. That means if you are visiting others over Christmas we’re asking you in the five days beforehand, as early as this Friday, to reduce the number of people you are in contact with to the lowest possible.
‘If possible don’t travel from a high prevalence to a lower prevalence area and avoid staying away from home overnight if you can.’
He went on: ‘Whatever your plans for Christmas, please think carefully about avoiding crowds in the Boxing Day sales.
‘And no one should be gathering in large groups to see in the New Year.’
He added: ‘If you have an elderly relative you might want to delay seeing them until they have been vaccinated.’
At her daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon urged Scots to stay in their own homes if they can, rather than visiting relatives. She said those who have yet to fix a bubble to be in, should not form one now.
World Health Organization urges families to wear masks at Christmas
The World Health Organization has pleaded with families to wear face masks and socially distance at Christmas get-togethers to cut the risk of spreading coronavirus.
The UN agency said the measures would ‘contribute significantly’ to saving lives and preventing loved ones from getting sick, but admitted they ‘may feel awkward’.
In updated guidance published yesterday, the WHO warned that Europe was teetering on the brink of a third wave of Covid-19, which could peak in the first weeks of the new year.
The body said that mixing over Christmas could exacerbate the virus’ spread and make the January peak more deadly.
The new guidance says: ‘Indoor gatherings, even smaller ones, can be especially risky because they bring together groups of people, young and old, from different households, who may not all be adhering to the same infection prevention measures.
‘Gatherings should be held outside if possible, and participants should wear masks and maintain physical distancing. If held indoors, limiting group size and ensuring good ventilation to reduce exposure risk are key.
‘It may feel awkward to wear masks and practise distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy. Vulnerable people and older friends or relatives may find it very difficult to ask loved ones to stay away physically.’
In her daily briefing she said: ‘The safest way to spend Christmas this year for you and those you love is to stay in your own household and your own home.
‘My strong recommendation is that this is what you should do if at all possible.
‘Any interaction you do have with another household should if at all possible be outdoors, but if you do consider it essential indoors with someone from another household you should limit both the duration and numbers as much as possible.
‘The five-day relaxation is a window of opportunity during which you can meet, it is not a period that we think it is safe or sensible to get together for. You should see it as a maximum, not a target.
‘My recommendation is that if you do form a bubble you should not meet up with people in it any more than on one day over that period, if possible, and you should not stay overnight unless it is unavoidable.
‘You should also limit numbers as far as possible, three households is a maximum that tries to account for the fact that families come in all shapes and sizes, but two would be better.
‘In short if you have to form a bubble keep it as small as possible.’
Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Government briefing: ‘Here in Wales, the position is that only two households should come together to form an exclusive Christmas bubble during the five-day period.
‘The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus.
‘None of us wants to be ill this Christmas. And we don’t want to give coronavirus to our close family or friends.
‘The Chief Medical Officer for Wales has provided special advice for people who were previously shielding about mixing over Christmas.’
Mr Drakeford also announced swingeing restrictions outside of the bubbles, with all non-essential retail, including close contact services and all leisure and fitness centres, ordered to close at the end of trading on Christmas Eve. All hospitality premises will close from 6pm on Christmas Day.
A full ‘Level 4’ lockdown will then come into force from December 28 – after the bubbles legally expire – with blocks on household mixing, holiday accommodation and travel.
Coronavirus cases recorded in Scotland, England and Wales between March and December are seen above. No update was provided for Wales on Sunday due to planned maintenance of the NHS Welsh Laboratory Information Management System
In the Commons, Sir Keir said easing coronavirus rules at Christmas looked like being the PM’s ‘next big mistake’.
‘If he really is going to press ahead with this, could he tell us what’s the assessment and has it been done of the impact it will have on infection rates that increase pressure on the NHS?’ the Labour leader jibed.
But a clearly infuriated Mr Johnson replied: ‘I wish he’d had the guts to just say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas – I think that’s what he’s driving at, he’s looking a bit blank, I think that’s what he’s driving at.
‘I can tell him there is unanimous agreement across all the UK Government, across all the devolved administrations – including members of all parties, including his own – that we should proceed in principle with the existing regulations because we don’t want to criminalise people’s long-made plans.
‘We do think 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.
Where could ESCAPE Tier 3 in latest review?
Counties could be split by new local lockdown tiers as MPs call for rural wards to be given looser rules than towns and cities being hit harder by Covid-19 as Government data shows infection rates are dividing communities in Kent, Leicestershire and Lancashire.
Health chiefs will meet to review the restrictions for the run-up to Christmas and are expected to be heavy-handed. Cases are rising again nationally and the effects of November’s lockdown have all but worn off in parts of the country, with more than 34million people now living under Tier Three rules.
But MPs from across the country have called for their rural residents to be cut some slack from draconian policies, with people living in ‘zero Covid’ villages lumped under rules triggered by outbreaks in nearby towns or cities.
Kent MP Tom Tugendhat is advocating for the county to be split into sections so people living in the countryside in his constituency can have more freedom. Kent is in Tier Three because Medway and Swale have some of England’s highest rates — but Department of Health figures show case numbers are rising even in smaller areas, proving that outbreaks can leak out into smaller communities.
In Lancashire and Leicestershire there are calls for some areas to be released from the toughest restrictions, with millions having been forced to live under strict curbs for months on end.
And data shows that counties in the South East – England’s new hotspot – are divided, with cases high and rising in the towns but much lower in the greener areas around them, with splits potentially on the cards for East and West Sussex.
Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham said the city has a ‘good case’ for being pulled out of Tier Three, having been under the tightest restrictions since October, although rates remain high in some districts.
‘That is how by being sensible and cautious – not by imposing endless lockdowns or cancelling Christmas as he would appear to want to do, that’s the only implication I can draw from what he’s said unless he wants to announce some other idea – that is the way we’ll continue to work together to keep this virus under control, to defeat it and take the country forward.’
Two leading medical journals had warned keeping to the five-day plan was a ‘major error that will cost many lives’.
But ministers decided it would be unfair to penalise the whole country because of concerns about surging cases in London and the South East.
And there were warnings that any attempt to ban Christmas would be impossible to enforce, with police chiefs already warning officers would not get involved in ‘policing people’s Christmas dinners’.
Concerns have also been raised about the impact on people’s mental health if families are suddenly forced to cancel their plans to meet up this Christmas, and instead have to spend it alone.
In a round of interviews this morning, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted there will be no change to the legal rules underpinning the five-day festive easing south of the border, saying the government should not ‘tell people how to come to a decision’.
But he urged families to ‘choose to do less’ amid anxiety over rising coronavirus cases, admitting that the close contact is likely to fuel infections in the New Year.
‘My sense is that many people, older members of the public, are coming to the conclusion that with the great news of the vaccine it might be wise to wait and get together with family and friends a little bit later on, but I strongly feel that this is something where members of the public need to use their own judgment,’ he told BBC Breakfast.
‘The Government can set a legal framework, and we have done and that applies across the whole of the United Kingdom, but we can’t legislate for every eventuality and everything that’s happening in people’s own lives.’
Mr Jenrick said he ‘respected’ the opinions of scientists warning about the consequences of the easing, and said there had been ‘quite serious’ fallout in the US following Thanksgiving last month.
‘This is a virus that thrives on social interaction, so bringing more people together, even over this short period of time, is not cost-free. It will have consequences in terms of increasing the rate. It will rise,’ he told Sky News.
Mr Jenrick suggested some people may want to put off large family gatherings until the spring.
‘Easter can be the new Christmas,’ he said.
Government sources had pointed out that Ms Sturgeon imposing extra restrictions would be deeply disruptive for families who have already planned for the loosening. ‘Even she might baulk at this one,’ one source said.
Another government aide said: ‘If you ban people from seeing their loved ones at Christmas, the next question is, how are you going to enforce that?
‘Would you set up roadblocks to stop people travelling? Would you ask the police to kick down doors on Christmas day? That is not something this Prime Minister would ever contemplate.’
Coronavirus deaths recorded in Scotland, England and Wales between March and December are seen above
A source told the Telegraph: ‘We’ve set out the rules, people know what they are, it would be wrong to change them this close to Christmas when people have made plans.’
In a hard-hitting joint editorial yesterday, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal called for the ‘rash’ decision to relax social distancing rules to be reversed.
They warned the Government was ‘about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives’.
They added: ‘Members of the public can and should mitigate the impact of the third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months. But many will see the lifting of restrictions over Christmas as permission to drop their guard.’
The British Medical Association (BMA) yesterday said Mr Johnson should have tightened the planned relaxations between December 23 and 27 to protect the public.
The union urged people to make the ‘right choices’ by keeping indoor socialising ‘to an absolute minimum’ over the festive period and not necessarily form three-household bubbles despite being permitted to.
It also pleaded for people in England to follow the Tier rules for their area before and after the five-day Christmas window.
140,000 Britons have already been vaccinated
Almost 140,000 Britons have been vaccinated against coronavirus in the first seven days of the roll out, a Government minister has claimed.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said 137,897 people have received the Pfizer jab so far, including 108,000 in England, 18,000 in Scotland, 7,897 in Wales and 4,000 in Northern Ireland.
Mr Zahawi said this was a ‘really good start’ and promised more people would get the vaccine when more centres opened. He only provided precise figures for Wales.
The UK’s largest ever vaccination programme kicked off on December 8, with the Health Secretary promising ‘millions’ would get the jab before the end of the year.
But at the current speed of vaccination it will take another six weeks for a million people to be vaccinated, meaning the target won’t be met until January 25.
BMA council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘Relaxing the rules will, without doubt, cost lives and the impact on the NHS in the new year will be grave.
‘For those reasons, as the voice of thousands of doctors, we urge people to think long and hard about how many people they share their Christmas with.’
Dr Nagpaul added: ‘None of us would knowingly wish our loved ones to suffer or put their lives at risk and it is vital that we all take precautions to protect each other.
‘The BMA believes the Prime Minister should have used as an opportunity to restrict the relaxations in order to protect people in England – as we have seen the Government in Wales do.
‘However, without this change, we as doctors are urging that people avoid meeting unless absolutely necessary.’
Dr Nagpaul said doctors were concerned about how the NHS would cope with another surge in infections, with hospitals ‘already struggling to cope’ with ‘huge waiting lists’, including for patients with non-Covid conditions.
‘The NHS has never been tested to this level and we simply don’t know how or if it will be able to cope if there is a third wave of infections,’ Dr Nagpaul added.
Dr Rachel McCloy, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, said the updated Christmas guidance was ‘another example of quickly changing and ambiguous messages’ from the Government.
She said: ‘At times when messaging has been mixed or ever-changing, public trust has been shaken and misinterpretations of the rules have been more common.’
She said a key question was whether the new tougher guidance should have accompanied the initial Christmas rules announcement as it was more closely aligned to expert medical advice at the time.
Dr McCloy added: ‘If the Government had ensured that the rules for meeting up over Christmas aligned closely with the guidelines for minimising infections, people in the UK would have been better supported in making safer decisions over the festive period.’
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said it would be ‘unwise’ for people, particularly the elderly or clinically vulnerable, to ‘push the limits of the eased Christmas restrictions’.
He added: ‘The governments around the United Kingdom are having to look more closely at how these eased restrictions will provide greater momentum for further spread and they will need to be poised to respond in the new year.’
Experts continued to sound the alarm about the risks of the festive season.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said Christmas celebrations should be held in the ‘most modest way possible’ if it is necessary to mix households.
She told BBC Breakfast: ‘I think, when this decision was made to have this loosening, we were in a slightly different position than we are now, in the middle of the lockdown in England, the tougher tier system was about to be introduced, and I think Governments hoped that numbers would continue to go down, and that is not the case.
‘Just to emphasise, we’ve got a lot of people in hospital now – over 18,000 – we’re really heading towards the peak of just over 20,000 that we had in April.’
She said that, while the safest thing would be not to mix households, there are some exceptions, and that celebrations should be postponed if possible.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer yesterday tried to pressure the Government into scrapping the amnesty. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Keir said: ‘The tiered system has not kept the virus under control and has left us with precious little headroom.
‘If you take the wrong decision now, the ramifications for our NHS and our economy in the New Year could be severe.’
But Tory grandee Sir Desmond Swayne said ministers were right to trust families to celebrate safely.
He added: ‘As a Conservative, I fundamentally believe that individuals make better decisions on behalf of themselves, their families and communities than Government or medical journals can. The health and scientific lobby has to be put back in its box.’
The number of coronavirus cases in England dropped by a quarter during the second national lockdown, a Government-backed study has revealed. Pictured: A graph showing a drop in the percentage of positive tests per 10,000 people when the second lockdown began in November
The news came as last night questions mounted over the Christmas bubble plan amid a rise in cases, while the emergence of the new Covid strain has thrown another element into the situation.
In a blunt editorial yesterday, the BMJ and HSJ said: ‘When government devised the current plans to allow house-hold mixing over Christmas it had assumed the covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing.
‘But it is not, it is rising, and the emergence of a new strain of the virus has introduced further potential jeopardy.
‘Members of the public can and should mitigate the impact of the third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months.
‘But many will see the lifting of restrictions over Christmas as permission to drop their guard.
‘The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the Spring and again in the Autumn.
‘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.
‘It should also review and strengthen the tier structure, which has failed to suppress rates of infection and hospitalisation.’
The article added that ‘the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives’.
‘If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be ‘protecting the NHS,’ it said.
Following up on the report, Chris Hopson, head of the hospitals’ group NHS Providers, told the Times that the government may have to make ‘difficult decisions’, but the consequences of a third surge in Covid-19 cases ‘would be far worse.’
Professor James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, meanwhile said he expected a post Christmas surge in case numbers.
He said: ‘The likelihood of an exponential surge due to relaxation over Christmas means that high case numbers at the start of Christmas will make January dramatically worse.
But he said festive get-togethers could be made safer, adding: ‘If the visit is short, wash your hands thoroughly, wear a mask if possible, sit apart and ventilate the room. If two households are joining a household over Christmas, it will help if everyone in the household stops all other socialising for at least five days beforehand.’
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Sage advisory group, said: ‘Just because we can meet up with two other households, it doesn’t mean that we should.’
But Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, said gatherings are a ‘tolerable risk’, adding that shops and schools will be closed over the festive period and people will not be going to work, all driving down the R rate.
‘It does carry with it a risk but, looking at the other side of things, January is generally a very bad month for people’s mental health,’ he said.
Mr Hunter later told the Telegraph: ‘If you stay with an infected person less than five days then the risk is about one in eight. If that per son is asymptomatic then the risk is even lower, about one in 20.’
Scientists said Imperial College research, published three weeks ago, showed the chance of catching a virus from mixing at home for a short period was around five per cent.
Meanwhile, politicians also urged caution. Speaking in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, Ms Sturgeon said: ‘I would urge the utmost caution.
‘If you can avoid mixing with other households over Christmas, especially indoors, please do.
‘But if you feel it essential to do so – and we have tried to be pragmatic in recognising that some people will – then please reduce your unnecessary contacts as much as possible between now and then.’
Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Parliament: ‘Whichever way the governments of the United Kingdom resolve this issue, it will be a very, very finely balanced set of judgments between different sorts of harms that are caused whichever course of action we embark on.’
Mr Drakeford said the ‘virulence’ of Covid-19 this winter had not been predicted in modelling that was carried out in many parts of the world.
‘I will be discussing with Michael Gove directly whether the four-nation agreement that we struck continues to have marginally more advantages then disadvantages, or whether there is a different balance that we ought to strike,’ he told the Senedd.
‘In either direction, harm is done.
‘Harm is done whether people get together over Christmas in a way that isn’t responsible and doesn’t observe all the advice that we have given to people.
‘If we seek to prevent people from meeting over Christmas, a different sort of harm will be done to people’s sense of mental health, to people’s sense of how they can survive through this incredibly difficult year together.’
He added: ‘The choice is a grim one, isn’t it. I have read in my own email account over the last couple of days heart-rending pleas from people not to reverse what we have agreed for Christmas.
‘People who live entirely alone, who have made arrangements to be with people for the first time, they say to me that this is the only thing that they have been able to look forward to in recent weeks.
‘And yet we know, if people do not use the modest amount of additional freedom available responsibly, then we will see an impact of that on our already hard-pressed health service.’