Will coronavirus be the Grinch that stole Christmas? It’s one of the many questions on everyone’s lips, following the new Covid-19 restrictions.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Boris Johnson announced the new restrictions, which include a 10pm curfew across England, weddings of just 15 people, working from home if you can and mandatory face masks for bar staff, shop workers, waiters and taxi drivers.
The prime minister said we are at a “perilous turning point”, adding: “Unless we palpably make progress then we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months.”
His statement marks a significantly different tone to the previous Downing Street briefing, where the PM said: “I’m still hopeful, as I’ve said before, that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas.”
In July, Muslim families across the north-west of England were forced to change or cancel long-awaited Eid celebrations with just hours’ notice when new lockdown rules were imposed.
Looking ahead to Christmas 2020, HuffPost UK asked three experts for their predictions, and although each said it’s too early to say for certain, it doesn’t look good.
“Christmas will not be the same – of that I am absolutely sure,” says Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “To what extent Christmas may be cancelled depends on us right now.”
Given the current increase in UK Covid-19 cases, all three experts believe the six-person rule will be in place for some time, with the possibility of restrictions being extended further.
“The re-opening of schools and the shedding and seeding of the virus more widely in the population leading up to Christmas will make ongoing, leap-frogging, Covid-19 outbreaks more likely,” says Dr Julian Tang, consultant virologist and honorary associate professor, at the University of Leicester.
Christmas day (and the lazy period afterwards) doesn’t pose a big problem in itself, he adds. It’s the run-up that’s the issue.
“In the UK – unlike in Asia where everything is open and people go out a lot – Christmas is mostly a home and family affair – almost like a voluntary, self-imposed lockdown for a few days,” he says. “However, the main risk is likely the pre-Christmas shopping days and the festive spirit that this creates.”
Dr Tang’s concern is we’ll begin to relax social distancing behaviours if we’re going to crowded shopping malls and sipping mulled wine in packed pubs.
“Shopping online for Christmas is safer but much less atmospheric and festive, so may not be so popular,” he says.
Although some universities are conducting lectures online until 2021, Prof. Bloomfield is concerned about the impact of many students returning home from campus.
“They’ll have Christmas parties and then they’ll come home and spread out across the country and spread the virus elsewhere,” she says. “It just doesn’t really bear thinking about.”
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine and expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, is a little more optimistic.
Christmas is a religious festival and will never be formally “cancelled”, points out Prof. Hunter, but we may need to celebrate it in more intimate ways this year. Judging by the current trajectory, the next peak infection rate could be December to January, he adds.
“The big office work parties and things like that almost certainly won’t be happening in my view, which some people might breath a sigh of relief at,” he says.
Even if church ceremonies do go ahead as usual at Christmas, “the big issue about churches is the age distribution,” says Prof. Hunter.
“Most people who attend tend to be quite old, on average. It’s quite plausible that the government may recommend shielding again at some point, probably sooner rather than later, I would guess,” he adds. “Even if church services can go ahead, it may be the case that three quarters of the congregation can’t turn up because they’re supposed to be shielding.”
Schools still might be open, adds Prof. Hunter, “but the typical school nativity play probably won’t happen”.
“Schools won’t be getting loads of parents into a hall to watch their children pretend to be shepherds,” he says.
Of course, as the six-person rule is likely to remain in place, multi-household meals won’t be happening. Even if restrictions ease, granny might need to stay home. “Covid-19 can be more severe in older populations,” says Dr Tang. “So, sadly, multi-generational family gatherings may be potentially less safe and may need to be avoided.”
A vaccine may be available by Christmas, says Prof. Bloomfield, adding a glimmer of hope. But the chances of it being rolled out nationally by December are slim.
“It will take many, many months to produce enough vaccine to produce what we call ‘heard immunity’,” she says. “There might be enough for those at highest risks – healthcare workers and people in extremely vulnerable groups – but to produce population herd immunity by Christmas, from what I’ve heard, is not a possibility.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.