But Mr Hancock said people should be cautious ‘two weeks ahead’ and take ‘personal responsibility’ around what they choose to do both before and during the relaxed rule period.
Britain yesterday recorded a further 20,263
Official figures released on Monday also revealed 232 people died after testing positive for the virus – in a 22.8 per cent spike on the 189 deaths seen on the same day last week.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured during the coronavirus press briefing on Monday) has urged Britons to consider pre-isolating now before meeting vulnerable elderly relatives at Christmas to lessen the risk
Covid lockdown rules are set to be eased to allow up to three households to form a ‘bubble’ for five days over the festive period. Pictured: A socially-distanced meeting between a grandmother and her grandson earlier this year
Britain yesterday recorded a further 20,263 coronavirus cases, in a rise of more than a third on last Monday’s total
Official figures released on Monday also revealed 232 people died after testing positive for the virus – in a 22.8 per cent spike on the 189 deaths seen on the same day last week
Mr Hancock was asked at Monday’s Downing Street briefing if people should self-isolate from now if they want to see elderly loved ones next week.
He said: ‘I think that if you want to see elderly relatives at Christmas, we all know that the best thing to do is to make sure that you don’t have coronavirus, and the best thing you can do if you want to see elderly relatives at Christmas is to be extremely careful now about who you see.’
He said it is important that people are careful in this period ‘two weeks ahead, making sure you minimise the chance of both catching the disease and passing it on’.
He warned the public that it is not about ‘doing the maximum that the rules allow, it’s about taking personal responsibility’.
The UK Government and devolved administrations have agreed a joint plan to relax rules between December 23 and 27.
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty also struck a cautious tone, saying people should not meet at Christmas just because they can.
He told the No 10 press conference: ‘The point of this (relaxation of rules) is for, under certain circumstances, families who wish to, to get together, but they really have to be very, very careful.
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
A rise in infections means London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be put under Tier Three curbs from Monday night
‘And in particular, incredibly careful if they’re around people who are vulnerable, who are at very high risk of this virus.’
He said the vaccine will ‘give us a way out’, but that will not happen by Christmas or in the two months afterwards.
He said: ‘We need to be really conscious of the fact that only by protecting one another, and particularly protecting the vulnerable over this period, are we going to get through to the point where people have been properly protected, and we can return to having the kinds of relationships with family that all of us want.’
He said there is a ‘really difficult balance between doing things that are the least damaging we can achieve, whilst keeping the virus under control – walking that really narrow path’.
Other experts have warned that relaxing restrictions throughout the UK over Christmas will have consequences.
Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on Covid-19, said the price of such a relaxation ‘could well be very high’.
Urging people to think carefully about their plans, he told Times Radio: ‘Just ask yourself, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year?
‘It’s much better not to do it when there’s this kind of virus about.’
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said she was concerned about people travelling from areas with high infections to parts of the country with lower prevalence of the virus.
But she added that if the Government reneged on the relaxation pledge then trust in politicians could be eroded further.
Professor Stephen Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, said: ‘Right now we are heading towards disaster.
Shoppers out and about in Regents Street in central London on Monday night as the news of the Tier 3 move emerged
People sat outside a pub in the West End of London. Hospitality venues will only be allowed to serve takeaway from Wednesday morning
‘Given high levels of infection across the country and the increasing levels in some areas (such as London) it is inevitable that if we all do choose to meet up over Christmas then we will pay the price in the new year.’
Some scientists fear a relaxation of restrictions could fuel the new Covid variant that may be behind a surge of cases in southern England.
Urgent talks are under way in Whitehall on whether to tighten regulations. A source said: ‘The Christmas rules might change.’
Alan McNally, professor in microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham, stressed that Britons should remain ‘calm and rational’ following news of the variant strain.
He said: ‘Huge efforts are ongoing at characterising the variant and understanding its emergence.
‘It is important to keep a calm and rational perspective on the strain as this is normal virus evolution and we expect new variants to come and go and emerge over time.
‘It’s too early to be worried or not by this new variant, but I am in awe of the surveillance efforts in the UK that allowed this to be picked up so fast.’
Professor Whitty told the Downing Street press conference on Monday evening there was nothing to suggest a vaccine would not work against the new strain and that current tests can detect it.
He explained: ‘There’s still a quite a small proportion of the population, currently have immunity due to prior infection.
‘So there isn’t a huge selection pressure on this virus.
‘And therefore, it would be surprising – not impossible, but pretty surprising, if this would actually have evolved to be able to get around the virus.’