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Thursday June 24th, 2021 8:41AM

UK consensus fraying over Christmas easing of restrictions

By The Associated Press
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LONDON (AP) — The consensus across the four nations of the U.K. over the planned easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas appears to be fraying — even though they all agreed Wednesday to keep in place the laws around the relaxation.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the four nations had “unanimously” agreed to maintain the special Christmas rules, but it seems that the guidance in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could well be different come the start of the scheduled five-day relaxation from Dec. 23.

Following a meeting Wednesday of leaders from the four nations the law surrounding the Christmas easing will remain in place, allowing three different households to form a holiday bubble until Dec. 27.

Johnson told lawmakers there was agreement at the meeting that “we should proceed in principle with the existing regulations because we don’t want to criminalize people’s long-made plans.”

Though the law won't necessarily change, the guidance could be different across the four nations. The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, has already said his government's recommendation is that only two households should gather.

Concerns over the planned easing have ratcheted higher in recent days. With new infections rising in many places, many fear that the relaxation will only escalate infections and deaths and put too much pressure on the already-stressed National Health Service.

Johnson said it's important that people make proper assessments of what's right for them and their nearest and dearest.

“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," he said.

The looming temporary easing comes days after many parts of the country have seen restrictions tightened. On Wednesday, London and nearby areas entered the highest level of local restrictions in England — Tier 3 — in which pubs and restaurants had to close again apart from takeout, and more curbs were placed on different households meeting up. Other areas in England, including the cities of Manchester and Birmingham, are finding out later Wednesday whether they will be moved down to Tier 2 restrictions.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine developed by America’s Pfizer and the German company BioNTech had changed the narrative since the Christmas bubble decision was made last month. The U.K. on Dec. 8 became the first country in the world to use the vaccine, which has an efficacy rate of around 95%.

“It’s given hope that early in the new year, if not before, those people can be vaccinated. So why not wait a few weeks or months to get family together when you can do so safely in 2021?” he told BBC radio.

Britain’s new vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said Wednesday that 137,897 people had received a shot since inoculations began. They must all return in three weeks for a follow-up shot.

“A really good start to the vaccination program,” he said in a tweet.

The government, which is providing the vaccine free of charge mainly at hospitals so far, is first targeting nursing home workers and people over 80. Nursing home residents are now being vaccinated as well after issues relating to the transportation of the vaccine, which needs to be kept at super-cold temperatures, were addressed.

Despite the update, questions remain over how many people can be inoculated on any given day, and what proportion of people being offered the vaccine are agreeing to get a shot.

To date, 800,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are known to be in the U.K. and 5 million more are expected to arrive this year, half of the original expectation.

Other vaccines, from American biotechnology firm Moderna and one developed by the University of Oxford and British pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, are currently being assessed by British regulators.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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