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England is back in lockdown. The rules require people to stay at home other than for essential reasons such as travelling to school or work, and refrain from meeting people they do not live with. Restaurants, pubs, gyms and non-essential shops are also closed.
These restrictions are scheduled to be reviewed on December 2, with the option of being extended, which has sparked fears of a Christmas under lockdown. Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, has said that we mustn’t rule out a digital Christmas, although many are hopeful that the rules will be relaxed over the festive period. Boris Johnson has promised to make Christmas as “normal as possible”.
Regardless of whether we are in full-blown lockdown, or closer to a “rule of six” with household mixing, Christmas is undoubtedly going to look different this year. Elderly relatives may find themselves isolated, people will have to figure out how to make Christmas dinner as safe as possible and even carol singers may find themselves falling foul of lockdown guidelines.
To understand how the holiday period might look, we asked eight coronavirus experts how they would be spending their Christmases. Here’s how they responded.
Currently, public events like Christmas markets, carol singing and attending church are up in the air. Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland is cancelled, as are Christmas markets across the country. “We’ll be avoiding any indoor events, but I can see us visiting our local outdoor Christmas market if it’s open and not crowded,” says Christl Donnelly, professor of statistical epidemiology at Imperial College London. “I’ve been in the UK long enough to hope that there will still be a broadcast of Carols from King’s even if it is last year’s shown again.”
“Outdoor events with smaller numbers of people are likely to be low risk, so subject to local guidance at the time, we may take [our daughters] to an outdoor event,” says Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton. “We’ll have to see what’s planned locally.”
Luke Allen, a global health analyst and an academic clinical fellow at the University of Oxford, says he will deeply miss singing hymns and worshipping collectively in church, especially since his wife has just qualified as an Anglican vicar. “The bottom line is that we will only attend public events if it is safe to do so, and that doesn’t look likely,” he says. “Having attended a few socially distanced, outdoor church services I can see that potentially happening in some form, but I think most of our public engagements will occur in pyjamas – or at least the bottom half.”
Carol concerts are almost certainly off this year, with the possibility of carolers roaming the neighbourhood in groups of six. “I don’t usually go to church, but I do nondenominational carol singing with some mates at Oxford,” says Amitava Banerjee, associate professor in clinical data science at University College London. “If I don’t do that, then it’s because of the social distancing guidance and trying to keep the infection rate down.”
Though international travel is now banned, it may be lifted before Christmas. But holidays during a pandemic bear obvious risks, and there’s evidence that summer holidays contributed towards a second wave in the UK. “We haven’t been abroad this year, and certainly don’t plan to over Christmas,” Head. “A holiday is supposed to be a relaxing or fun experience, and I can’t really envisage any travel being low-stress at the moment, tempting those it is to leave the UK behind for a short while.”
Those experts with family abroad, will also not be seeing them. “I’m American and British, and my husband is Australian and British,” says Donnelly. “In an alternative universe, we’d probably be abroad for Christmas and New Year with one family or the other giving our sons the chance to catch up with their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. It would be lovely to celebrate with family and friends, but it just isn’t worth the risk right now.”
“We would first of all have to go to India to see relatives,” says Banerjee. “But the challenge there is that India has also been struggling with the pandemic, infection rates and quarantine rules.”
And there are, of course, other reasons why we might not travel abroad this year. “Besides this pandemic, there’s also this global warming thing going on,” says Allen. “Like many other families, we’re aiming to reduce our carbon footprint by spending more time in the UK with the occasional foreign trip.”
Of course, the most familiar – and economically vital – aspect of Christmas is giving gifts. The festive season accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of the high street’s annual revenue, and, perhaps surprisingly, online shopping hasn’t wiped out the Christmas shop yet – 64 per cent of us still preferred the high street to online. As you might imagine, however, the pandemic threatens to tip the scales firmly in online shopping’s favour. Footfall in August for non-food stores was down 34.8 per cent nationally, while Amazon has flourished during lockdown, with sales up 40 per cent in the three months to June.
Many of our experts shop online anyway, but they did note some changes, such as the possibility of giving “digital gifts”, like streaming music or films. “My seven-year-old daughter did really enjoy getting presents sent via Amazon,” says Banerjee. “And I think that online shopping has been a lifesaver during this period for sending gifts even if it’s not Christmas.”
“The extended family will receive gifts bought online and delivered locally, because sending parcels internationally hasn’t always gone well,” says Donnelly. “My mom who is sheltering alone in the US is extra cautious and won’t handle the post until some days after it arrives, so I’ll have to plan ahead.”
Head is getting creative. “We tend to buy a lot online anyway. But my wife, being the former teacher and thus arts and crafts expert that she is, has already started making some home-made tree decorations, for example, the Grinch or an elf, wearing a mask with 2020 sewn onto it,” he says. “And she has plans to make some Baileys Irish cream equivalent and some fudge. They’ll be packaged up as mini hampers, and delivered to nearby relatives’ front doors in the days leading up to Christmas!”
Many experts explained that the digital Christmas Vallance suggested, as well as digital New Year, was very likely – they will be replacing many physical meetups with Zoom calls and Zoom parties. “We’ve gotten used to playing dice games like Yahtzee and Perudo together via video,” says Donnelly.
“We’re usually at home on New Year’s Eve anyway, so that’ll be the plan here,” says Head. “Throughout lockdown, we’ve been regulars on Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz, and he has promised a special quiz on the 31st, so that’ll form part of our evening’s entertainment. I think we will stay up until midnight, not so much to celebrate the new year but more to wave goodbye to 2020.”
Currently, this lockdown is projected to remain on till December 2. We asked our experts whether, if the government relaxes restrictions, their plans will change. All of them were extremely cautious. “If it’s legal and safe to hang out with loved ones, then I will,” says Allen. “There’s a wider issue here around the slightly different orbits occupied by government regulations and what the ‘science’ says – admittedly not a heterogeneous bloc. I wouldn’t ever want to put others at risk just because the law doesn’t prevent me.”
“If infection levels got down to mid-summer levels and it was allowed, it would be lovely to see friends indoors,” says Donnelly. “We’d still stay distanced though.”
The government allowing household mixing would be the most obvious change here. “I think we will be careful with household mixing, even if the government does declare some of the rules no longer apply,” says Head. “If we do have any relatives over, then we’ll be careful with opening doors and windows as much as possible to ensure better ventilation, to sit some distance apart, to keep visits fairly short, and not share cutlery etc. It does feel a bit mean to be thinking that way over Christmas, but the coronavirus won’t take the week off, so we’ll definitely be erring on the side of caution.”
Balancing risk and reward
But there is a risk of being excessively careful, too. While Christmas is meant to be a joyful time of year, for some it only hammers home their isolation. Combine this with the pandemic, and the effects of another severe blow to the economy, and you have a recipe for a miserable time. “It’s an understatement to say it’s been a hard year already, and many people are suffering from lack of social contact, not to mention anxiety and exhaustion,” says Alexander Edwards, associate professor in biomedical technology and immunology at the University of Reading. “I think this is true for many ages – of course, isolated relatives but also young people missing out on catching up with family and friends.”
As Edwards emphasises, it won’t just be the old who are suffering from loneliness and isolation. “I’m more worried about in-person education being stopped again than almost anything else that’s happening,” says says Julii Brainard, a senior researcher in health protection at the University of East Anglia. “It harms all society if education and training are suspended; it needs to be a high priority to try to avoid that.”
And in some instances, explains Banerjee, distancing may simply be impossible. “I’ve been up north a couple of times to see my parents and, you know, the first time it was very much sitting on opposite sides of the room and trying to go outside to parks,” he says. “But the second time we went, and it started with, you know, my daughter taking over unable to control herself jumping into her grandparents’ arms, and then we all did.”
Best possible Christmas
We asked our experts to envisage the least restrictive Christmas they could. “My Christmas wish is for rapid mass-testing so that we will all be able to check our status before meeting up with friends and family,” he says. “With a few provisos, that would allow hugs, singing, Christmas dinner, and even mistletoe-related activities.” Unfortunately, says Allen, his dream hinges on the UK’s test and trace system working correctly, which would take “a Christmas miracle.”
“I think mixing with one other household indoors, with possibly a socially-distanced walk in the park with other relatives outdoors, would be about as relaxed as I envisage our Christmas being,” says Head.
Though Christmas in 2020 will be far from normal, there are still many elements of the holiday we can enjoy. “Some things won’t change,” says Allen. “Putting up the (real) tree with cheesy smooth jazz covers in the background, two mince pies with double cream every evening for a month, the conspiratorial glee of wrapping the kids’ stocking presents with my wife.”
There may even be small blessings, says Edwards. “We’ve squashed more than 20 around a table in past years – and although that sounds fun, it can be a bit loud,” he says. “Whilst we do love all our relatives, this year we’re truly looking forward to a quiet time at home, just the four of us.”
As it has been at every point in this pandemic, every decision is a trade-off between risk and reward, explains Tolullah Oni, an urban epidemiologist and clinical senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge. She says she has had to reconcile with the fact that she may not see her parents. “But with the strategic longer term goal of reducing transmission and health inequalities particularly amongst deprived and black and minority ethnic groups who are most exposed and suffer the greatest consequences, while emotionally tough, I feel that in my context, it’s a small price to pay,” she says.
Above all else, says Sheila Bird, former programme leader of the MRC Biostatistics at University of Cambridge, this Christmas the public will need to “watch, wait and adapt.”
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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