Jonathan McHugh illustration of Anjana Ahuja column ‘Will a very Merry Christmas mean a painful New Year?’
Some people will follow guidance to keep Christmas small or virtual, waiting for a promised vaccine © Jonathan McHugh 2020

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The writer is a science commentator

The rules over Christmas gatherings in the UK have turned out to be something of a turkey: a hulking distraction that is too overcooked for some, dangerously underdone for others — and a challenge for all to digest.

Last month, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland agreed that from December 23 up to three households would be legally permitted to form a “Christmas bubble” for up to five days. The past week saw calls for the rules to be changed in the wake of rising infection rates. The editor of the British Medical Journal warned that permitting the festive loosening would be to “blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”. 

After a rethink last week, the four nations decided on a spot of regifting. Rather than offering a more cautious permutation of merriment, such as two households mixing over three days, they decreed the old rules should be the new rules, only this time wrapped up in sterner advice not to follow them to their limits (except in Wales, where only two households can now bubble). UK prime minister Boris Johnson, terrified of being headlined the grinch who cancelled Christmas, called it a matter for personal responsibility. Meanwhile, Germany and the Netherlands have entered lockdown, with more modest reprieves around Christmas Day. 

These important decisions are thankless calls: banning big Christmases risks snatching away windows of respite in a grim and isolating year. It seems cruel to families who, perhaps because of terminal illness, cannot come together in the same way next year.

The reality, however, is that we are still in a pandemic. Transmission is not abating. The reproduction number in some parts of the UK, including London, could be as high as 1.1, meaning the virus is taking off again. If people understandably use the legal relaxation to criss-cross the country, it could spell a third wave — despite many areas coming under tighter restrictions to dampen transmission ahead of the loosening.

That is because this coronavirus thrives on social contact, as it always has and always will. Close-contact gatherings, especially indoors for long periods, are hazardous, with exhaled aerosols posing a significant risk (more are expelled during singing). Chris Whitty, the UK chief medical adviser, recommended keeping Yuletide socials small, local and short. Or, as the official government tip sheet puts it, the seasonal exemptions from the rules “should be seen as a legal maximum, not a target”.

That document zigzags between setting out legal limits and advising revellers to stop short of them. The legalities include sticking to dates, not breaching bubbles and following self-isolation rules, even if it means missing the fun. Advice includes: isolate for at least five days before meeting up; avoid staying overnight; wash hands; disinfect surfaces and door handles regularly; ventilate indoor spaces. The very vulnerable are advised to think carefully before bubbling, especially as one in three of those infected show no symptoms.

The extreme caution is warranted: households are known hot zones. Sage, the government advisory group, estimates that one infected person can infect up to half the people in their household. Though it is hard to compare, the home appears to be riskier than schools and, possibly, hospitality. An Office for National Statistics survey shows prevalence in schools simply mirrors that in the community; Mark Woolhouse, an Edinburgh university professor, concluded there was “little evidence that schools are driving the epidemic”. The summer Eat Out to Help Out discount-dining scheme is reckoned to have pushed up new infections by between 8 and 17 per cent.

Christmas bubble members might also ferry the virus back home, sparking new outbreaks. Sage concluded that any relaxation “will result in increased transmission and increased prevalence, potentially by a large amount”.

Sage member Graham Medley, who heads infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says two factors will determine the price paid in January for Christmas arrangements: disease prevalence on December 23, something that current restrictions and school holiday closures will help with; and how people behave during the five days. He knows of some planning large gatherings and others opting for solitude. “The situation is very uncertain,” Prof Medley told me on Thursday. “That means there is a risk that we will regret what happens over the period. It also means we might wonder what all the fuss was about.”

Many will follow guidance to keep Christmas small or virtual, waiting for the freedom promised by vaccination. Others will flex their legal right to mingle. That is the trouble with mixed messages, Robert West of University College London said last week: we choose which one to hear. Despite appeals to stay home, more than 8m people took flights around Thanksgiving, the highest passenger numbers since March. The effects of this mass migration are not yet clear but most anticipate a rise in infection rates. 

The only certainty is that our collective decisions now will set the course for January, and determine whether the screws will need painful tightening to compensate for an unchained Yuletide. It brings to mind A Christmas Carol when Scrooge, shown the consequences of his actions, pleads for the chance to choose differently: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead . . . But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

It can be thus. Merry Christmas.

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