Should I stay or should I go — “I have clinically vulnerable relatives at home — is going back for Christmas worth the risk?”

·6-min read
A family in 1982 sit down to Christmas lunch together — Zoe Beaty wonders if this might become a thing of the past.  (Shutterstock / Elzbieta Sekowska)
A family in 1982 sit down to Christmas lunch together — Zoe Beaty wonders if this might become a thing of the past. (Shutterstock / Elzbieta Sekowska)

I deleted the message three times. The plan had been to leave London and head home, back to Lincolnshire, where my family have been preparing for Christmas.

We’ve talked about the plan for weeks now — and because we spent last Christmas apart, this year it has felt all the more important to do it right. Or, at the very least, be together. The message I wrote last night, though, simply said: “I’m sorry, I don’t know… I think I should stay put.”

Like many, my little family has been through the mill in the last couple of years. In November 2019, my little sister, then 15, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Then, suddenly, this summer, my step-dad found out that he has stage four bowel and liver cancer. Sandwiched in the middle, another enemy — the virus. It amounted to three lots of emotional whiplash, in quick succession; many phone calls and video calls and, eventually, the uncomfortable clarification of acute worry into quiet (but constant, rolling) anxiety.

Now it’s Christmas and I find myself walking a balance beam. Should I go home and see my family, risking their health? Or stay in London and protect them? How many tests is enough? In the last few days, these questions have settled heavily in my stomach. While government advice suggests doing “what you think is best”, the weight of that — the responsibility of it all — feels a bit frightening. “I’m not stressed, as such, more… numb?” a friend, whose housemate is awaiting the results of a PCR test, texted this morning. Another said the uncertainty is causing friction in her family. When we’re all just one lateral flow away from spending Christmas in isolation, what is best? The temptation to preemptively cancel and avoid the overwhelming disappointment of watching that sinewy little line appear is rapidly building.

“I want my mum to cancel Christmas,” a friend, whose dad starts radiotherapy after Christmas, told me on the phone this morning. “I know she wants to see us but… I’m worried.” The texts from other pals have been coming in thick and fast this week, one positive test after another. Of course they have – this week saw the UK’s highest ever number of coronavirus cases (78,610), and a further 165 deaths. “There are several things we don’t know,” Chris Witty said sadly, during another briefing, “but everything we do know is bad.” He outlined that we’re currently facing two pandemics, “one on top of the other”. Still, the party line from our Prime Minister remains focused on the booster programme — and the rest, essentially, is up to you. A friend joked that they should have concluded the briefing with The Clash’s 1982 hit, Should I Stay Or Should I Go, just to rub it in a bit.

While no further state-imposed provisions are anticipated to help stop the spread of both the Omicron and Delta variants, plenty of us are considering self-imposed restrictions. In the UK, 2.2million clinically extremely vulnerable people were asked to shield at the beginning of the pandemic by the government and, as a result, their family members too. Cancer Research estimates that there are around 375,000 new cancer diagnoses every year, while more than two million are living with cancer. Coupled with the many, many other conditions or illnesses that others — or their family members, or even simply ageing family members — might be living with, it amounts to a lot of people currently walking the same balance beam as me.

In June, after my step-dad’s diagnosis I made a frantic trip up north to be with him. After two hours on a packed train (I hid in the toilets to avoid infecting my shielding family), though, I realised I’d have to buy a car. We agreed it would be safer and, for a time, it was — I built a routine of isolating for a few days before a trip home, hammering the lateral flows in the 48 hours before leaving, and only stopping to use drive-through services on the four-hour journey. When my step-dad began chemotherapy in September, we agreed that me and his other children wouldn’t enter the house, difficult as it has been not to be able to care for him, and support my mum. They have been pretty much in isolation since, waiting for the end of chemo and a Christmas to spend together. Instead, another wave took hold.

And so here we are, in the midst of dé ja vu, except with the stabilisers taken off for the second time around. I have, of course, taken all precautionary measures so far and cancelled plans from now until Christmas, similar to last year (though my family and I, like most people, still spent it apart). Unlike last Christmas, which saw government sanction draw county lines around the festive season and helped us to justify our absence, in many cases, this year the responsibility of the spread lies conveniently with the individual. After so long away from each other, we’re desperate for meaningful contact, of course, but it comes with a heavy price.

Many of us are already isolating and testing daily, but still worrying about even the slightest risk of harm that we could cause. Personally, I feel like a ticking time-bomb, waiting to go off. It’s always easy to answer these quandaries from afar: that I could be the source of more upset, more difficulty, more illness in any way is a chronic worry. Shouldn’t it be simple? Yet, I don’t want to spend Christmas alone in my little south-London flat, and I don’t want to disappoint my excited little sisters (who I am supposed to be staying with in one week’s time), one of whom will go for brain surgery in late January. I’m lucky: I have wonderful friends who have generously offered to have me stay with their family. But not everyone has that option.

For others, this could be a decision that has long-lasting emotional implications. What if it’s likely to be the last Christmas you have together? What if you’re being over-cautious? How can you weigh this risk? What if I’m judged? What about the impact on your own mental health? And that of your family who, just this once, needs a little bit of light?

Our collective position — the millions of us asking, should I stay or should I go? — is not an easy one, nor will it be in the forthcoming days. The likelihood is, of course, that a large chunk of us will test positive before then and be forced by the hand of the virus at the root of all of this. For the rest of us, it’s another Christmas hanging in the balance.

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