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“Christmas will likely lead to an increase in transmission.” That’s the government’s own assessment, published in its Winter Plan this week. And yet, the next day, the Prime Minister announced that up to three households will be able to meet and mingle with one another between December 23 and 27 across all four nations of the UK.
Further official guidelines are to follow but the three-households plan has already alarmed some scientists. “He’s encouraging people to mix indoors,” says Tim Colbourn, an epidemiologist at University College London. “It just seems to be a big risk.” Colbourn argues it is possible that cases could rise again in England during December, once tighter restrictions there ease up at the start of the month. Covid-19 could subsequently spread more easily over Christmas itself: “And instead of locking it down, we’re going to be opening it up again.”
Others have pleaded with the public to be cognizant that highly effective vaccines against Covid-19 are, potentially, just around the corner, so it would be best to avoid transmitting the coronavirus for the sake of sharing turkey and crackers. “We don’t want to be shot in the trenches just as the armistice is arriving,” is how Baroness Joan Bakewell put it to Channel 4 News.
There’s no denying that 2020 has been an extraordinarily difficult year, however, and many have pointed out that allowing families to come together in a safe manner could be very important for their mental health and general wellbeing.
“When we talk to people, we know the hardship that it causes not to be able to spend time with the people they love,” says Sascha Miller, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Southampton who is part of the team behind a website called Germ Defence, which aims to give people advice about how to protect themselves and their loved ones from Covid-19.
The site will shortly be updated with content specific to Christmas, she adds, noting that people ought to think carefully about how much time they need to spend indoors – if any – with people from other households, since that is where transmission is most likely to occur.
Some members of the public have told Miller and her colleagues that they will stick to virtual-only gatherings this year, such as joining a video call propped up on the table during Christmas dinner. Or displaying family members live on a big TV for a remote but roughly life-size present unwrapping.
Miller admits this won’t be possible for everyone and says deciding whether or not to visit elderly parents who may feel particularly lonely will be a tough call for many. In her own case, she says that because her father passed away earlier this year, she and her immediate family intend to self-isolate for 10 days and then spend Christmas with her mother. “There’s no way we want to see her spending Christmas on her own,” she says.
But Miller will still be taking precautions when she visits her mother. These include ideally keeping at least two windows open when indoors, wearing masks for hugs, washing hands, maintaining social distancing, and spending time outside of the house as well, to help lower any viral load within the building, she adds. Opinion differs on whether hugging at all is a good idea. “Don’t hug your granny,” the Northern Ireland chair of the British Medical Association, Tom Black, has said.
While there may always be a risk of transmission indoors, it’s about weighing up what you as a family are comfortable with, bearing in mind what we know about how Covid-19 spreads, Miller says. A visit might be unavoidable but don’t stay overnight in someone else’s house unless you have to, for example.
Family circumstances might make meeting indoors inevitable, says KK Cheng, an epidemiologist at the University of Birmingham. “I can understand those situations,” he says, though he proposes that people don masks except when eating and avoid raised voices or singing. No Chrimbo bangers on the karaoke machine, then.
Where people can do without those indoor visits, they should: “You would regret that you made a decision to have a big gathering over Christmas if in February you have to go to a funeral,” says Cheng. Families might simply plan to move Christmas celebrations back several months until after vaccines have, hopefully, been rolled out, he suggests.
Colbourn agrees that wearing masks and improving ventilation indoors will likely lower the risk of spreading Covid-19 and adds that outdoor gatherings at a safe distance might be a good substitute for congregating indoors, if possible. “I’m actually for a lot more outdoor mixing than we currently have,” he says. That could mean going for a Christmas Day walk after you’ve had separate meals in your own homes, for instance, or wrapping up warm and meeting in a garden.
Unfortunately, such solutions won’t even be an option for some, notes Frank Gormanley, a spokesman for the charity CentreStage, which works with local communities in Kilmarnock, Scotland, including deprived and vulnerable people.
Many are facing extreme isolation this year and, for them, the charity is considering virtual catch-ups, phone calls and 45-minute, socially distant indoor gatherings in groups of six or fewer that comply with local Covid-19 guidelines. When thinking about how to connect responsibly with people over Christmas, we should all think about how to make sure no-one gets left out, he says: “Whether that’s a check-in with a neighbour, a phone call or a wee gift at someone’s front door that you think would spread some happiness – but doing it in a safe way.”
Travelling for Christmas may present additional risks, for example when using public transport, though again there are things you can do to prepare and stay safe, such as wearing masks en route and adhering to social distancing guidelines, says The Rail Ombudsman. Many rail operators are also only accepting passengers who have reservations, to avoid overcrowding. Anyone travelling by air or sea to and from Northern Ireland has two extra days, December 22 and 29, to make their journey and meet with people in their Christmas bubbles under government rules.
For students heading home, departure will be staggered in early December to avoid one big rush and many campuses have launched testing programmes, including the University of Birmingham. The university pointed out on Twitter that a negative result would not mean someone is definitely Covid-free, but rather it would indicate that they are unlikely to pass the virus on should they travel home within the following 24 hours.
In sum, this will not – and should not – be a normal Christmas, says Miller. Ultimately, people must remain mindful of just how dicey a traditional British Christmas would be in terms of viral transmission. “Where everyone sits in the house all day, eating and drinking with the windows shut, getting nice and stuffy and then falling asleep in front of the TV is just about as bad as it gets, to be honest,” she says.
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