UK to allow family visits during Christmas as govt set to announce mass Covid-19 testing

People walk past a Christmas tree in Covent Garden in central London, on Nov 22, 2020.
People walk past a Christmas tree in Covent Garden in central London, on Nov 22, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Britain's transport secretary will announce on Monday (Nov 23) that blanket quarantine restrictions will end in time for Christmas so that families can travel to high-risk "red list" countries to visit relatives, The Telegraph reported.

Restrictions will be slashed from 14 days to five if holidaymakers test negative five days after returning to the country, the Telegraph said on Sunday.

The regulations will be changed to enact the new five-day regime on Dec 15 or 16, with people freed from quarantine as soon as they get their test results, according to the newspaper.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce a massive increase in community coronavirus testing on Monday as part of a plan to reintroduce tiered restrictions in place of the England-wide lockdown that ends on Dec 2.  

Areas under the highest level of curbs will have access to regular tests. People who come into contact with someone with the disease will be able to avoid quarantine by taking a test every day for seven days, Mr Johnson’s office said.  

The programme, which will be trialled in Liverpool, northwest England, is due to be announced by the prime minister in Parliament on Monday, alongside tougher restrictions for the worst hit areas and guidelines for family visits “for a small number of days” over the Christmas holidays.  

“The increase in new cases is flattening off, but we are not out of the woods yet,” Mr Johnson will tell lawmakers, according to his office.

“With the expansion in testing and vaccines edging closer to deployment, the regional tiered system will help get the virus back under control and keep it there.”

The prime minister is trying to balance the reopening of the economy in England – where restaurants, bars and many shops have been closed since Nov 5 – with the need to slow the spread of the pandemic, which has killed more than 55,000 people in the UK, including over 3,000 in the past week.  

Under the new plan, non-essential retailers and gyms will be allowed to reopen, and a curfew on hospitality businesses will be moved to 11pm from 10pm, according to a person familiar with the guidelines.

More areas will be placed into the higher tiers of restrictions, with stricter limits on household mixing. Details of exactly where will be announced on Thursday.  

Mr Johnson is facing a rebellion from a group of 70 lawmakers from his Conservative Party, who warned they’ll not back the return of the tiered structure unless ministers provide a full “cost-benefit” analysis of the plan.  

MPs are due to vote on the new rules before they come into force, and if all the signatories to the letter join the opposition parties to vote against Johnson, the government would face defeat.  

“We cannot support this approach further unless the government demonstrates the restrictions proposed for after Dec 2 will have an impact on slowing the transmission of Covid, and will save more lives than they cost,” they wrote in a letter to Mr Johnson.

“The lockdown cure prescribed runs the very real risk of being worse than the disease.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak sought to reassure the potential rebels, saying the cost to livelihoods, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, is being taken into account along with wider health impacts.  

"Restrictions on businesses’ ability to trade are enormously damaging, not just for them, but for the people that they employ,” Mr Sunak told BBC TV on Sunday. “As we’ve learned more, there’s opportunities for us to look and refine things.”

The opposition Labour Party said it will “look closely” at the new proposals before deciding whether to support them. There needs to be better financial help for people affected by the restrictions and certainty for businesses, the party said.  

Under the new programme, care workers, employees in food manufacturing, prisons and vaccination centers will be offered weekly swabs. Increased testing will also be used to allow more visits to residents in care homes, Mr Johnson’s office said.  

Universities have also been offered mass asymptomatic testing to ensure students can safely travel home for Christmas.