The prime minister looked us squarely in the eye. It was, he said, time to get Christmas done. The British people had had enough prevarication. They wanted a great British Christmas and he had an oven-ready yule waiting to go. “We’ve got a great Christmas deal, it’s basted, it’s stuffed and there’s even an onion in the parson’s nose. All we have to do is slam it in the oven.”
There were those who said it was risky but the prime minister had a plan for that: he was going to tell people to be “jolly careful”. Whoa there, big guy, no snogging cousin Sue under the mistletoe. And how about festive face masks instead of hats? Oh, and stick gran in the corner, or better still in the attic with Mr Rochester’s wife.
Some say that this virus does not know it is Christmas. Well it is time to pretend it does. Are we really to believe, Johnson asked, that Covid-19 is truly unaware of the festive season? Has it not seen the John Lewis ads? Did it not weep with Waitrose or smile at Sainsbury’s? Surely it has heard the songs and it knows whether we’ve been naughty or nice.
It has been a tough year. We have all had to make sacrifices. And there has not been a lot to laugh about. Admittedly we’ve still got Rudy Giuliani and his fellow Trump lawyers, each one-handpicked from the cast of What We Do in the Shadows. But once you get past the absurdity, you are still talking about an attempt to overturn a democratic regime, so the laughs dry up reasonably quickly.
So the PM is right. We need this Christmas; we deserve this Christmas. It is time to take back control. We’ve had enough of the gloomsters and the experts and scientists telling us what we can and can’t do. We just need to face this virus with confidence and with self-belief. Instead of giving £350m to that mate of John’s for a bunch of face masks that only fit if you have the cheekbones of a bonobo, why not keep the cash and spend it on presents instead?
We are going to go into these negotiations and we are going to tell coronavirus to take a break, have some eggnog and come back refreshed in the new year. Maybe even invite it in for a drink on Boxing Day, if it hasn’t already found its own way there. But make sure it sits at the other end of the table and wears a mask. A bad Christmas is better than no Christmas at all.
OK, enough. There is an argument for a Christmas truce, even if the enemy will not be observing it. There is the psychological importance of giving people something to look forward to, even if it could increase the spread of the virus. The misery of a Christmas alone is something we can all understand. Whatever the scientific arguments, the social demands guaranteed a Christmas exemption.
If you have always opposed lockdown, then this was an easy call. But for those who believed in the need for continued and substantial restrictions stretching into the new year — which is all the governments of the UK — the Christmas truce is patently an absurd position, especially with vaccines now so close to reality. It is a decision taken for the highest of motives but the worst of reasons by graduates of the University of Cross Your Fingers and Hope for the Best.
For all that, there is one very good argument for the policy. It throws decisions about the risks we are ready to take with the lives of those we love back into our own hands. No one is forced to max out on Christmas. Some will be careful. Some won’t. If we are lucky, the extra restrictions imposed in the weeks before will mean the virus is sufficiently contained for the damage to be limited. The gamble is that Brits will accept this as conditional parole and return to more months of restrictions with good cheer on December 28.
But from the point of view of public policy, once you accept that the risks we take with a virus spread heavily by indoor household mixing are a matter for individuals, it is extremely difficult to argue that those individuals can only be trusted for five days.
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