A very Covid Christmas: The families considering disregarding the rule book for the festive season

Sophie Gallagher
·11-min read

James*, 31, from London has stuck religiously to the coronavirus rules. He didn’t visit his godmother at the end of her life in a care home in May; had to postpone his wedding to 2022; has celebrated countless birthdays on Zoom; and hasn’t hugged his mum since February. Now, he has done a 180-degree turn.

“I cannot believe the government has screwed this up so badly we’re now looking at it ruining Christmas as well,” he tells The Independent. Christmas is still 58 days away when we talk but James has pledged that he will be visiting his mother in the home counties, regardless of the rules in place on 25 December – currently both his (and his mother’s) regions are in tier 2, where households are banned from mixing indoors.

“My mum lives with an abusive partner, and I live with my fiance, so neither of us qualify as a single-adult household for a support bubble,” he explains. “Despite this, my mum has been suffering with depression all year, she was made redundant from her job of several decades, and my sibling lives abroad so won’t get home to see her. I need to be there.”

James says the Dominic Cummings saga in May influenced his decision. “That felt like such a kick in the teeth but I still wanted to do the right thing then. Now, I’m going to do what feels right. If the PM wanted to avoid this he shouldn’t have backed Cummings – he had me on side for so long”. James says he is thinking about getting one of the newly-available Boot’s Covid tests, which cost £120, and will self-isolate at home for a week prior to the trip.

Boris Johnson is on course to join Oliver Cromwell, Fidel Castro and the Grinch on a list of people who have cancelled Christmas. Across the nation, Christmas markets are cancelled, people have been told to get “digital Christmas ready”, and Nicola Sturgeon had to reassure children that Father Christmas is a key worker so can work over the holiday.

Mr Johnson has said it is his “ambition” for people to be able to celebrate with their families, but the introduction of the three-tier restrictions, mean that currently in the best-case scenario people can socialise with five people or fewer, and in the most stringent cases people cannot see other households indoors or outdoors. And on 28 October it was reported that Sage had called for all of England to be tier 3 – the highest tier in the system, which forbids both indoor and outdoor socialisation with other households – by Christmas.

Although environment secretary George Eustice maintained on Wednesday it was “too early to say exactly what the situation will be”, for weeks the penny has been slowly dropping that the much-promised return to normal by Christmas is looking increasingly unlikely. Sage professor John Edmunds bluntly said it was “wishful thinking in the extreme” to propose it and a meeting of the independent Sage group on 30 October predicted England to be just three weeks away from the April-peak in terms of hospitalisations, summarising the situation as “mostly bad”.

But with Johnson having repeatedly emphasised his wish for people to have Christmas with their families; rumours that (unlike Eid and Rosh Hashanah) there would be an exception made for Christmas; and Johnson’s pandemic narrative placing such high value on individualism and “common sense” – it seems possible that many people may decide to scrap the rulebook entirely.

BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire came under fire following an interview with the Radio Times in which she said she would break the rule of six, should it still be in place. “We're breaking it to have the rule of seven. We just are,” she said. “We’ll do it knowing what the risks are,” she added, saying her family would buy a thermometer gun. “We have to be together at Christmas. It feels almost irresponsible saying that, but I don’t think we’re alone in feeling that way.”

Although the presenter later repeatedly apologised, saying her comments were “wrong” and “hypothetical”, and that her family would continue to follow whatever rules are in place at Christmas, it seems Derbyshire articulated a feeling that, for many, is bubbling under the surface, discussed only in private WhatsApp groups and behind closed doors.

Kate* from Manchester, shares her home with a lodger so she won’t be able to form a support bubble with her parents for Christmas (as neither are a single-adult household), despite not anticipating celebrating with her housemate. The 30-year-old has struggled with anxiety and depression in the past and has been concerned about a relapse. “I really miss my parents and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever see my grandparents again,” she explains. “Especially since there’s no guarantee Christmas 2021 will be any better. There seems to be no end in sight”.

Kate, who has worked in a supermarket throughout the pandemic, says she finds it frustrating that she will spend Christmas away from family when she has repeatedly seen people break rules at work. “People don’t wear masks, they lean over me when I’m filling a shelf, cough in their hands then hand me their change. I try to not let it bother me but it’s frustrating.”

She says she thinks many people agree with Derbyshire’s initial statement and were “probably quietly thinking of doing it themselves” but “they’re too afraid to admit it”. Although Kate herself is still undecided about her Christmas plans and says she may end up just spending it alone as her parents and grandparents are vulnerable and she doesn’t want to put them at risk.

As well as trying to reconcile risks taken in the course of employment with restrictions on your personal behaviour, others have looked to the hospitality industry where households are permitted to sit alongside each other for hours, as justification for bending the rules at home.

Claire, 47, from Ashton, who is a nurse, says she wants to be able to take more responsibility to make decisions for her family, including inviting people over for Christmas and abiding by strict hygiene rules “like if you go to a restaurant”, she says, including a full deep clean of her house. “We have been absolutely following the rules since the start but when you see the people who make the rules breaking them, it does make you wonder why you are bothering.”

Claire, who has four sons, says she and her surveyor husband will be inviting her elderly father over for Christmas day as he lives alone, “as long as he is happy to come”. They will also be inviting her sister, who is a single parent. “I know both of them have been suffering mentally having lost our mother a year ago,” she said. “I’m not talking a get-together for the sake of it, I’m talking about making sure the ones you love aren’t isolated.”

Naomi*, 45, from Teesside, is also planning on seeing her family of six because she is worried it is the last Christmas they will have together: her mother has had heart failure for seven years, her father is 75, and her six-month-old nephew was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. “We’re going to be as safe as possible, but we probably will break the rules. This could be our last Christmas as a family, and we have done everything to keep ourselves safe so far.”

Although the gathering of six would be acceptable in tier 1, Teesside is already in tier 2 which forbids indoor mixing. She says the only exception would be if the country goes into full lockdown, in which case they will stay apart, and she does worry about the threat of a fine (individuals can be fined £100, doubling up to a maximum of £3,200) but says: “It’s a case of weighing it all up, risk assessing and making common sense choices.”

Currently the devolved nations are on different roadmaps from England – Wales is in the middle of a 17-day firebreak lockdown so people in England are not allowed to travel into the country. Although ministers have promised to end the firebreak at midnight on 9 November, some rules could remain in place. Gaynor, 58, who lives in the Vale of Glamorgan says regardless she has told her youngest daughter to “cross the bridge for Christmas”.

“The first lockdown I didn’t see my [four] children or grandchildren for three months and left my mum’s shopping at the end of her path. It was heartbreaking for all of us, my mum said she would rather die than go through lockdown again. I cannot continue to be so isolated.” Gaynor repeatedly emphasises that her family will be “very careful” and “protect themselves”.

Samantha, a 19-year-old student in County Westmeath, Ireland, where there is currently a “level five” lockdown for six weeks, says she will also still see her close family at Christmas. “Christmas is the only thing keeping me sane right now,” she says. “A lot of people I’ve spoken to feel the same. A digital Christmas honestly just sounds so depressing.” Although she, like the others, is deterred by the idea of police enforcement or potentially breaking the law.

Despite the importance of Christmas to many, the timing for a “cheat day” could, in a sense, not be worse. The risk of the NHS being overwhelmed in mid-winter is high when the health service faces an annual flu-related bed shortage. The prevalence of alcohol and emotion around the holiday (and cold weather), doesn’t reassure experts that social distancing measures will be adhered to. Not to mention the annual public transport exodus sees thousands crammed into small spaces together for long journeys: Friday 22 December is historically the busiest day of the year with Eurostar seeing 34,000 passengers per day in 2019 and National Express around 76,000.

In the last week there have been an average of 19,740 daily cases in England alone (24,405 on Friday) – Independent Sage says this needs to get below 5,000 per day for test and trace to have a realistic chance of coping – and 280 fatalities per day. A leaked report, allegedly presented to the prime minister in the summer, showed that a second wave of Covid-19 deaths could be far worse than the first and last till March or April next year. Others have predicted cases will peak at Christmas. This single 24 hours of people moving around the country, blending households, could serve to exacerbate already-dire statistics.

Bushra, 38, from Surrey, who says she is a “very good citizen” would never consider putting her family, or vulnerable people, at risk – “nobody loves my family more than me, definitely not the government” – but she has considered bringing three households together for a short time at Christmas, just for a few hours. Although she is still on the fence and will be guided by the situation closer to the time. “Whether or not I do it is a different story [but] families should be able to see each other in a safe way somehow. Risk assessment comes first, then action.”

There are of course others planning to stick to the rules regardless, and are already making contingency plans to see friends and family online. Gordon, 45, from Bristol, says he has already planned his digital Christmas. “We are going to sing some carols on Christmas Eve via Facebook Messenger, including my aunt in Oklahoma, USA, and a Christmas family quiz on Boxing Day,” he explains. “Lockdowns will continue if people break the rules.”

Throughout the pandemic – and the now 58,925 fatalities in the UK with Covid-19 on the death certificate – there have been divides over the degree of people’s adherence, whether that is mask-wearing in public places, social distancing or for some, holding house parties. Research by King’s College found 53 per cent of us have felt angry with other people because of their behaviour, and it seems Christmas will be no different.

While many people might be willing to let go of the office party, the drunk pantomime and packing into a school hall to watch a nativity play, they seem to be struggling with being unable to see close family on 25 December as the one year anniversary of the virus comes into view. Boris Johnson has repeatedly warned it would be a “bumpy road to Christmas” but it seems no one quite understood that might mean the police turning up to break up your turkey dinner. Only time will tell if people are required to test their commitment to the rules into 2021.

*Names have been changed

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