A COVID Christmas: What's allowed during the festive season?

22 November 2020, 01:15 | Updated: 24 November 2020, 20:11

Coronavirus rules will be relaxed over the festive season across the UK with people allowed to celebrate in three-household "Christmas bubbles" with their families.

Leaders in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all agreed that groups can meet at home, outdoors, or in a place of worship from 23 to 27 December.

Individuals will also be able to travel between tiers and across the whole of the UK without restriction within the five-day period for the purposes of meeting with their bubble.

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Those travelling to and from Northern Ireland will be permitted to travel an additional day either side.

The approach was agreed by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, the first ministers of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland during a COBRA meeting on Tuesday.

However, from 2 to 23 December, a tougher regional tier system will come back into effect for England, which is currently under a national lockdown. Ministers will set out which tier each region is going into on Thursday.

What is happening across all UK nations over Christmas?

  • Between 23 and 27 December, people across the UK will be able to meet with those in other households in their three-household bubble - but only in a private home, a place of worship or outdoors
  • A bubble will not be allowed to meet in pubs, restaurants or bars
  • Travel restrictions across the whole of the UK will be lifted during the period, allowing people to travel across the nations or between local tiers in order to meet with those within their bubble
  • Anyone travelling to or from Northern Ireland may travel on the 22 and 28 December, but should only meet with their Christmas bubble between 23 and 27 December
  • Once a bubble is formed, it is fixed, and must not be changed or extended further at any point
  • Children under 18 whose parents do not live together may be part of both parents' Christmas bubbles, if their parents choose to form separate bubbles
  • Students are considered to be part of the household to which they have returned for Christmas and are not treated as part of their term-time household for this period
  • Between 23 and 27 December, people can continue to use a childcare bubble, but only if "reasonably necessary"
  • Existing support bubbles count as one household towards the three household limit. This means that if you are in a support bubble, you can collectively form a Christmas bubble with two other households

A joint statement from the four nations said: "As 2020 draws to a close, we recognise it has been an incredibly difficult year for us all.

"We have all had to make significant sacrifices in our everyday lives, and many religious and community groups have already had to change or forgo their customary celebrations to slow the spread of coronavirus and save lives.

"This cannot be a 'normal' Christmas. But as we approach the festive period, we have been working closely together to find a way for family and friends to see each other, even if it is for a short time, and recognising that it must be both limited and cautious."

What will the rules look like until the festive break?

England will move back into the three-tier system of regional restrictions, which was in force from 14 October until 5 November.

More areas are expected to enter the higher end of the tiered system next month and, while many measures will be similar to those in place previously, the tiers will be strengthened in some areas.

  • Non-essential retail will be allowed to open in all three tiers
  • Gyms will be allowed to open
  • The 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants will be scrapped
  • A mass testing programme is to be launched in Tier 3 areas using the army, much like the pilot programme in Liverpool

How long will the tier system last?

The government is optimistic restrictions can be gradually reduced in the run-up to spring if vaccines are approved by regulators, allowing the rollout to begin next month before a wider programme in the new year.

But with no vaccines having been approved, the timeline is uncertain.

What was England's original tier system?

  • Tier 1 (Medium): Rule of six if meeting indoors or outdoors; pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm
  • Tier 2 (High): No household mixing indoors; rule of six applies outdoors; pubs and restaurants shut at 10pm
  • Tier 3 (Very high): No household mixing indoors or in some outdoor spaces; pubs and bars not serving meals are closed

Scotland remains in its five tier level system outside of the Christmas break.

  • Level 0: Nearly normal - people can meet indoors with a maximum of eight people from three households, most businesses stay open
  • Level 1: Indoor household meetings reduced to six people from two households
  • Level 2: Limitations on hospitality and no gatherings in peoples' homes
  • Level 3: Most eateries are closed completely but some restaurants stay open.
  • Level 4: Closer to a total lockdown, with non-essential shops shut. Six people can meet outdoors, with no limit on outdoor exercise. Some manufacturing business remains open


Welsh leaders are considering implementing a tier system in the run-up to to Christmas.

Since exiting its "firebreak" lockdown earlier this month, Wales has had some national measures in place:

  • People are only able to meet people who are part of their "bubble" in their own home and only two households can form a bubble
  • People can meet in groups of up to four people (not including any children aged under 11) in regulated indoor places, such as hospitality - bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants
  • Up to 15 people can take part in an organised indoors activity (such as an exercise class - where a responsible body is managing the event) and up to 30 in an organised activity outdoors

Northern Ireland

Rules here include:

  • People from different households in Northern Ireland are still not allowed to mix indoors, although there are some exemptions, with "bubbling" allowed with one other household of any size
  • From 27 November, restaurants, cafes pubs, and bars can only offer takeaway, drive-through or delivery and must close by 11pm. All non-essential retail will close
  • From 20 November, hairdressers, barbers and beauty salons were allowed to reopen, maintaining social distancing but they now have to close again from 27 November as part of the new restrictions on close-contact services
  • No unnecessary travel should be undertaken and face coverings are mandatory on public transport