The government's Christmas COVID laws allow “almost unlimited indoors mixing between households”, a top lawyer has warned.
Boris Johnson announced in the House of Commons on Wednesday the four UK nations would continue with the “Christmas bubble” policy, despite criticism of the plan and conflicting statements from devolved leaders.
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner said relaxed regulations between 23 and 27 December allowed mingling significantly further than the three households stated.
He said the law would extend this limit to six for many people, as each household was allowed to bring a “linked household”.
Watch: PM accuses Keir Starmer of wanting to cancel Christmas
Furthermore, Wagner said the definition of linked households – which were originally only one-adult households – had been expanded to include households with adults and a child under one, as well as single-adult households where a student has returned for the holiday period.
Also, he said children who live between two households are allowed move between them over Christmas, and that linked Christmas households can be made up of individuals, not households, but during this period go back to original households who can be linked to others.
Wagner said “the reality of the rules is that they can lead to almost unlimited indoors mixing between households”.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson urged people to take precautions this Christmas when restrictions were relaxed.
He suggested cutting down on the number of people you meet before the relaxation period, spending less time together when you do meet, and not staying overnight at a different household.
The PM said: “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.’
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said people should “keep it small, keep it short and keep it local” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Johnson told people to have “have yourselves a merry little Christmas – and I’m afraid this year I do mean little”, but added that he hoped next year’s celebration would be normal.
The PM said it would have been “frankly inhuman” to “ban Christmas”.
In a damning joint editorial on Tuesday, the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal warned the government’s Christmas bubble plan was “rash”.
In what was only their second joint editorial in more than 100 years, the two influential journals said the government should be tightening the rules rather than allowing three households to mix over five days.
"We believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives," the editorial said.
It argued that, far from giving people an opportunity to let their guard down over Christmas, Britain should be following the more cautious examples of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, which have just announced they were tightening restrictions.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also urged the government to reconsider the easing of restrictions over Christmas given the rise in infections across the country.
He said he wanted schools to remain open but that more needed to be done to ensure the safety of students and teachers, such as mass testing.
On Tuesday, a YouGov survey of 3,856 adults on Tuesday indicated 57% of Britons believe the plans should be dropped and that the 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.
Watch: The COVID dos and don’ts of Christmas this year