Families will be reunited for up to five days over Christmas after ministers from across the UK agreed to relax coronavirus restrictions.
Up to three households will be allowed to mix from December 23 to 27, Government sources indicated.
Details of the plan will be announced shortly and come after agreement was reached at a Cobra meeting bringing together the UK Government and the devolved administrations.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously acknowledged the risks involved in a Christmas relaxation, saying it is the “season to be jolly careful”, but the Government was determined to give families the chance to meet up at the end of a grim year.
Ahead of the Cobra meeting chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was hoped they could agree a “common framework” across the UK, although there may be some regional differences.
There could be variations on issues including the definition of a household – to “reflect the different circumstances in each nation”.
She said: “I know everyone has a desire to see loved ones over the festive period.
“However, there is also a very real and a very legitimate anxiety that doing so could put those we love at risk, set back our progress as a country and result in unnecessary deaths and suffering.”
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said there would need to be a cautious approach both before Christmas and in the “aftermath” because of the risk that increased household mixing could spread the virus.
He told the Welsh Parliament: “Coronavirus thrives when people get together and the more people get together, the more coronavirus there will be.
“It’s why I have been arguing in the meetings we have had for a focus not just on a small number of days of Christmas itself, but the decisions we need to take in the lead-up to Christmas and how we will deal with the aftermath and to try to do that on a broadly common basis as well.”
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people to “look very carefully” at how they will go home for Christmas – and even consider not travelling.
“We have got to understand there are limitations to the (train) network caused by, for example, things like the need on some trains to pre-book tickets at this time, in order to prevent overcrowding,” he told the BBC.
“So we are going to be appealing to people to look very carefully at the transport route they take and of course even making a choice about whether they travel at all.”
In England, the Government has already announced new tiered restrictions which will come into effect on December 2 and could last until the end of March – apart from any Christmas relaxation.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hoped the roll-out of a vaccine would signal that life could go back to “normal” by Easter, on April 4 2021.
He also suggested that some habits encouraged during the pandemic, such as regular hand-washing, would continue.
Mr Hancock told a joint session of the Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee that the “damaging social distancing interventions” could be lifted after Easter.
On Thursday, people in England will find out which tier they are being placed in once the lockdown ends.
More regions than before the lockdown are expected to face Tier 2 or Tier 3 restrictions, banning simple acts such as popping to the pub for a pint of beer or a glass of wine.
In Tier 2, alcohol can only be consumed with a “substantial meal” while in Tier 3 pubs and restaurants will only be able to offer takeaway or delivery services.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) which advises the Government, said he expected a lot of areas of England to emerge from lockdown into the highest tier as it was the best way of reducing the R value – the reproduction rate of the virus – to below one.
He told BBC Breakfast: “It may be initially we might see slightly more severe tiers but then when we start to see the effect of the lockdown, one to two weeks after the lockdown finishes on December 2, we might see some regions stepwise dropping down the tiers.”
In other developments:
– There were 2,466 deaths involving Covid-19 registered in the week ending November 13 in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics, the first time the figure has exceeded 2,000 since May.
– Government figures showed a further 608 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday, bringing the UK total to 55,838, although separate data from UK statistics agencies suggest there have now been more than 71,000 deaths involving the disease in the UK.
– And a further 11,299 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported on Tuesday, the lowest figure since early October.
– Professor Lucy Yardley, a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory panel, said there should be more focus on the way people mix inside homes – where people may let their guard down and cleaning may be less rigorous than pubs.
– Travellers arriving in England will be able to end their quarantine period with a negative coronavirus test after five days from December 15, Mr Shapps announced.
– English councils will be given new powers to close businesses for up to a week if they fail to make their premises Covid-secure.