Friends and relatives should be able to post cards and parcels for care home patients for free this Christmas, the Lib Dems urged tonight.

Ireland's postal service An Post has announced it will carry letters, large envelopes, packets and parcels up to 2kg addressed to residents in nursing homes, residential accommodation in the mental health or disability sectors and convalescent homes for free until January 31.

Former Lib Dem MP John Leech wants the Royal Mail to do the same in the UK.

Mr Leech, who leads the party on Manchester City Council, said: “Times have never been tougher and this Christmas will be one of the toughest times yet.

Receiving a card or parcel would cheer up many residents and patients
Posties are expected to be especially busy this Christmas

“It would be heartbreaking if family members or friends in care homes went without love this Christmas, so we've got to come together like never before.”

The Royal Mail handled 164 million parcels in December 2018 – and with some social distancing rules and restrictions on how many people are allowed to gather still expected to be in force over the festive period, experts are predicting a surge in deliveries.

Its financial results for the year to March showed an adjusted operating profit of £325million, on revenues of £10.8billion.

The Covid-19 pandemic is expected to trigger a fresh surge in people' posting letters, cards and gifts in the run-up to the festive season

In a letter to Royal Mail's interim chief executive Stuart Simpson, Mr Leech hails An Post's “wonderful gesture to support families and loved ones living in care homes, who have been so terribly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

He adds: “I would like to suggest that Royal Mail follows this example and makes the same commitment for residents living in care homes in the UK.

“All the evidence suggests that restrictions will be in place until the New Year, and there is every chance that restrictions will be made tougher in most areas of the country.

“This will mean that people face the prospect of not being able to see their loved ones around Christmas, and being reliant on the Royal Mail to keep in touch.

“I appreciate that the pandemic has been a challenge for businesses, and I am aware that Royal Mail has seen a continued decline in posted letters.

“However, at the same time, there has been a huge increase in the parcel part of the business.

“This trend is very likely to continue, particularly in the run up to Christmas.

“Providing this support to some of our most vulnerable residents would be a magnificent gesture by Royal Mail, and would be a great opportunity for the company to help out at this challenging time.”

A Royal Mail spokeswoman said: “We understand the important role mail plays at Christmas by keeping families in touch.

“We noted with interest the An Post initiative and will be looking at it in more detail.

“We are committed to providing a universal service that is fair and affordable.

“This in turn helps to keep the most vulnerable in our society connected.

"During the pandemic Royal Mail has played a crucial role keeping the UK connected at a time when it has been more difficult for many people to leave their homes.

“This has included delivering letters, parcels and important items such as hospital appointments to our customers.

“We are also delivering on behalf of the Government personal protective equipment to care homes, as well as Covid testing kits.

“We are proud to support our blind and partially sighted customers by offering free access to postage through our Articles for the Blind service.”