One thing is certain. If more people mix together in enclosed, crowded and stuffy spaces, more people will become infected with Covid-19, more will get ill, and some will even die. Five days of mixing at Christmas will inevitably lead to more deaths in the New Year.
What is less certain is how to limit such mixing. Is it best to insist that people cannot meet up in their houses, with the risk that many will simply ignore such regulations, meet up regardless and in doing so destroy any vestiges of trust between the government and the public? Or is it better to bend towards peoples’ desires a little in the hope of retaining some level of control?
There is no simple or single answer to these questions. And they are now largely irrelevant, because a decision has been taken. The government has announced a policy of Christmas “bubbles”, with up to three households allowed to meet indoors over five days. So how can we make the best of where we are?
When we are denied the option to do something such as meeting up at Christmas – and especially when we are denied by politicians – it can make that option more attractive. We may feel more inclined to break the rules, if only to assert our autonomy. This classic process is what psychologists call reactance. But once we are given the choice to do something, we may evaluate the different options and discover that the previously forbidden fruit is not quite so appealing after all.
Despite the government’s three-household rule, all of us still face choices. Christmas, most will agree, is a time for family, goodwill and compassion. Do we best express our care for our family, and our goodwill to the wider community, by meeting up with them – or by not meeting until it is safe to do so? Do we show our love, as normal, with a hug? Or, in these abnormal times, do we show love by not hugging?
The fact that individuals must make these choices does not mean that government decisions are irrelevant. The choices we make are always informed by the information and resources available to us. Over Christmas, the job of the government should be to help us to make the decisions that best keep us safe.
Of course, the best way to stay safe is to avoid indoor mixing altogether. We could decide to avoid meeting up at all, employing our newfound skills with Zoom and other digital platforms, and instead plan extravagant reunions for 2021. To make this possible, the government could declare extra public holidays for next year, for instance in the spring and summer.
Or we could meet outdoors, which is far safer than indoors. We might draw on the mutual aid groups up and down the country, reviving local community celebrations and bringing people together in properly managed, distanced ways, in streets, parks and fields. Here again the government could help us, by making local funding available for socially distanced community celebrations, for example.
But not everybody will want or be able to spend much time outdoors. Some people, such as those whose relatives may not have many Christmases left, may decide the risk of meeting indoors is worth it. In such cases, it’s still possible to make mixing safer. One way to do this is by limiting the number of contacts people have with others before they mix at Christmas, particularly if vulnerable people are involved. Another is by improving ventilation and thinking thoroughly about hygiene; not only cleaning surfaces but also not, say, eating from a shared pot.
A clear, focused information campaign would help us mitigate risks, even when mixing indoors. And the government can help us in other ways besides. It could allow school lessons to be taught online a week before the end of term, adding these days later in the academic calendar once a vaccine becomes available. This would help families to isolate prior to Christmas reunions.
Another simple and obvious step would be providing clear, detailed advice about keeping windows open during reunions to let air circulate. In the midst of winter, no matter however many blankets you swathe yourself in, this won’t be bearable without turning up the heating – which is akin to throwing money out of the window. To meet this need, the government could institute a pandemic fuel allowance, much like the winter fuel allowance, so everyone could afford to stay both safe and warm.
It’s not the details that are critical here so much as the government’s general approach. Many of the countries that have fared well during the pandemic are those with high degrees of social trust, where people act in ways that keep everyone safe. This trust derives in part from a government that supports people and is seen to be on their side.
If ministers simply issue edicts, they’ll be seen as out of touch with the realities of many people’s lives. Orders to “open your windows to stay safe” will achieve little more than widening the perceived distance between politicians and the public. But if the government shows an understanding of the reality in which many live, and offers them support, that chasm can begin to be bridged.
If we all take mixing to the official limit, this Christmas could be a disaster. But it could also be an opportunity for a different sort of Christmas, one where we show our care for others while staying safe from Covid. All the steps I have suggested are small, simple, and far cheaper than the costs of spiralling infections. But they would, if implemented, reflect a huge change in the relationship between the UK government and the public, motivating us to act in ways that keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe this Christmas.