Normal Christmas 'not a good idea' as experts warn 'a few days of fun can have dire consequences'

Santa Claus with a protective mask on his face during New Year's Eve brings a Christmas gift for children. He wears his red suit and Santa's hat, but also a protective face mask during the corona virus outbreak
With an effective vaccine not yet available for the public, Christmas is expected to feel rather different in 2020. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Experts have warned a “normal Christmas” is “not a good idea” as officials work to get a handle on the coronavirus outbreak.

With lockdowns and social distancing keeping families apart in 2020, many are undoubtedly anxious whether they will be celebrating the festive season with their loved ones this year.

A nationwide lockdown is in place in England until at least 2 December, with officials suggesting the tier system may be reintroduced as we come out of the extreme restriction.

While Christmas is a highlight in many people’s calendars, millions travelling to share a festive lunch could lead to a severe spike in cases.

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The new year may then start off with a third lockdown, with the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggesting five days of the extreme measure would be required for every 24 hours of festivities.

With a rise in cases inevitably leading to hospitalisations and deaths, one expert warned “a few days of fun can have dire consequences”.

Front view of happy senior couple indoors at home at Christmas, having video call with family.
Officials have not yet announced how people can celebrate the festive season, with gift opening potentially having to take place over Zoom. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

“Very starkly, the virus will inevitably spread over Christmas if there are more frequent contacts, within multigenerational family gatherings, from different households, from different parts of the country, for longer durations, in crowded home environments,” said Dr Julian Tang from the University of Leicester.

“This is how the virus spreads, as we have experienced over the past 10 months.

“So if you ‘follow the science’ with the aim of purely suppressing the virus, then a normal Christmas is not a good idea.”

With 2020 being a challenging year for many, one expert stressed any festive celebrations should not undo all our hard work.

“It would be foolish to spoil this by relaxing measures too far and causing unnecessary deaths,” said Professor Brendan Wren from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“Time and time again it has been demonstrated worldwide that premature exits from lockdown have fatal consequences, and we end up back in lockdown.

“This Christmas has to be different as the science shows us a few days of fun can have dire consequences later on.”

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With England on lockdown for at least the next 12 days, one expert stressed it is too early to say for sure how we may be celebrating the festive season.

“It’s mad to give absolute guarantees,” said Professor Stephen Reicher, from the University of St Andrew and Independent Sage – the alternative to the government’s official advisory group.

“If the NHS was in danger of being overwhelmed, if someone with a heart attack couldn’t go to hospital because they were full, it would be ridiculous to do things that increase the risk.

“The Christmas spirit is about family, gifts, keeping people safe.

“The worst gift you can give anyone is to endanger them, particularly your elderly relatives.”

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Experts have acknowledged relaxing, socialising and indulging over the festive season boosts our emotional wellbeing, with some wondering whether it could be enjoyed safely.

“There are other recognised serious social, emotional, psychological, risks and needs – especially around Christmas – that also need to be addressed,” said Dr Tang.

“So some balance of risks is needed.”

“If we can get the R [reproduction] number down towards one as much as possible, keep homes as well-ventilated – by opening windows and keeping inside doors open – as we can, protect ‘granny and grandad’ as much as possible within the home, then some sort of ‘limited’ Christmas may possible.”

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R describes how many people a person with the coronavirus would statistically be expected to pass the infection on to.

If R is three, for example, every patient would infect three others. When R is one, an outbreak plateaus.

“Any measures may be adhered to in a highly variable manner during the ‘festive atmosphere’ of any Christmas period if households are allowed to mix,” said Dr Tang.

“So unfortunately, there would be some fallout of this, with surges of the virus likely in the New Year.”

Dr Head suggested Christmas bubbles be created, for example two households being allowed to mix. This is not a simple solution, however.

“This level of restriction will still pose some risk and we would see higher numbers of cases in January as a result,” he said.

Dr Head also pointed out Christmas is far from the only celebration that was pared down in 2020.

“Chinese New Year was curtailed when the outbreak emerged in January,” he said.

“The Hajj usually attracts over 2 million pilgrims into Saudi Arabia but this year was restricted to just 10,000 visitors aged between 20 and 50, who were subject to testing. These measures prevented an estimated 127,000 new cases.

“The Israeli government banned household mixing and inter-city travel during Passover and here in the UK, the Eid festivals were also cancelled with little notice.”

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