Families will be allowed to meet for up to a week at Christmas – but tough restrictions could remain in place until then under Government plans to be announced early next week.
Boris Johnson is preparing to announce a UK-wide relaxation of rules from December 22 to 28, allowing several families to join in one "bubble", The Telegraph can reveal.
But the Prime Minister will say that the strength of the restrictions for the rest of next month will depend on how well the public complies with the current lockdown, which expires on December 2.
On Friday night, ministers heralded "a ray of light" in the Covid battle, with the NHS gearing up to administer the first jabs.
Every adult in England could be vaccinated by April under NHS draft plans which would see 44 million people receive jabs within five months. Under the timetable, roll-out for people aged 18 to 50 could even start in late January after older people and care workers are vaccinated.
The provisional schedule – which depends on the authorisation and arrival of millions of vaccines – sees care home residents and staff, NHS workers and the elderly starting to receive jabs before Christmas, and a far wider roll-out in the New Year.
The dates pencilled in for starting to vaccinate each group
Health officials said it was too early to commit to the timetable in the plans, which were leaked to Health Service Journal, but on Friday night Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said he was growing "more and more confident" that life will be closer to normal in the spring.
Mr Hancock said Britain was now "clearly near the peak" of the pandemic’s second wave, with figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggesting that infections have dropped by almost one fifth in a week.
He told a Downing Street press conference: "This is a virus that has cast a shadow over this incredibly difficult year. And we’ve always known that the best long-term answer will be the ray of light provided by a vaccine."
On Friday, the Health Secretary asked British regulators to start their assessment of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, with hopes that it could receive approval within days of them receiving full safety data on Monday.
"This is another important step forward in tackling this pandemic," he said, adding that the NHS would be ready to start vaccinations next month. Trial data found that the vaccine offers 95 per cent protection against Covid and works just as well in older people, with no major safety concerns.
Health chiefs said the NHS was having to plan for many different scenarios, and that the draft vaccine schedule drawn up a week ago had since been amended in light of updated information from manufacturers.
But on Friday night Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, said the health service intended to "move with as much pace as we can possibly muster" with only a matter of weeks difference between priority groups.
Next week, Mr Johnson is expected to outline a "four nations" plan for Christmas, setting out proposals for families to spend up to seven days together. Government sources said it would be "inconceivable" that families would not be allowed to attend Christmas church services, with talks between the nations on the details of the plans.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is understood to have pushed for the freedoms to be introduced several days before Christmas, starting on December 22, to allow pubs and restaurants to enjoy some "normal days" of trade before the holiday.
A Whitehall source said consideration had been given to lifting restrictions on December 24 but it was feared that would not give businesses enough time to benefit from pre-Christmas footfall.
The Government announcement of a "winter plan", which could come as early as Monday, will also see Mr Johnson set out details of "strengthened tiers" to replace the current system of restrictions.
While three tiers are expected to remain, each is likely to be bolstered, so that demands which previously applied to Tier 2 – such as a ban on household indoor mixing – may apply at the lowest level.
Government sources said the new system would be more "consistent", with clear rules attached to each tier. Some new elements will be introduced, with gyms and leisure facilities allowed to remain open in all parts of the country regardless of the tier an area is in.
Crucially, decisions about which areas are placed into which tiers will be made by central Government. Ministers hope to avoid the stand-offs and wrangling seen earlier this year when Greater Manchester council refused to accept Tier 3 status (see video below).
Ministers will wait until the end of the week to announce the placing of different areas into tiers, with assessment linked to the latest infections data.
The ONS confirmed on Friday that daily coronavirus infections in England have fallen significantly for the first time in the second wave.
The official ‘R’ value has also dropped to between 1.0 and 1.1, down from 1.0 to 1.2 last week. The ‘R’ value is several weeks out of date, so does not reflect the impact of the second national lockdown, which was brought in on November 5.
The ONS surveillance data showed that daily infection rates in the week up to November 14, were 38,900 per day, down from 45,700 the previous week – a drop of 18 per cent.