Written by: Sophia Halverson
Note: This article was written before the UK government instituted new coronavirus restrictions and lockdown measures due to a new strain of the virus.
As the winter holidays (particularly Christmas) approach, Europe and the rest of the world prepare for yet another holiday in the age of the Coronavirus where people will be tempted to disregard safety guidelines on social distancing, mask wearing, and group socializing because they want to celebrate with friends and family outside of their immediate household. This is prompting governments to preemptively lift lockdowns and lighten COVID restrictions, which could cause a new spike in cases in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s. Although governments face immense pressure to loosen restrictions for the Christmas holidays after nearly a year of social restrictions, many countries seem to be letting public pressure get in the way of good public health measures. Europe is already experiencing another wave of new virus infections that is likely to continue throughout the winter months. A large spike in infections and hospitalizations due to Christmas travel could put pressure on healthcare systems that will lead to stricter lockdowns in the new year. Governments should only lessen restrictions for the holidays if it makes sense given the amount of cases and hospitalizations the country has, and that doesn’t seem to be the case in the three European countries examined in this article.
In the United Kingdom, lockdown and travel restrictions will be lessened from December 23rd through the 27th (22nd through the 28th in Northern Ireland). During this time, up to three households will be allowed to gather in a “Christmas bubble” and will be allowed to mingle outdoors, in homes, and in places of worship. People will not be allowed to move between bubbles or go into pubs and restaurants in large groups. In Scotland, the bubbles can only consist of eight people maximum (not counting children under twelve), however, in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland there are no limits. Foreign travelers coming to England from approved countries can also have a shorter quarantine if they receive a negative COVID test. Most workplace Christmas parties and other big events will continue to be held virtually, as rules on large groups (none in pubs or anywhere outdoors) are unlikely to be relaxed. Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have different policies on opening churches for midnight mass, including limits on the number of people allowed to attend and bans on communal singing. Some theatres are opening for Christmas pantomimes, however, many socially distant Christmas performances will still go ahead, including a travelling drive-in show called “The Car Park Panto” that will allow audience members to watch from their cars. These lighter restrictions will not extend to New Year’s.
New coronavirus cases have fallen since a lockdown was imposed in November. New regional measures have created three tiers of restrictions depending on the local number of cases. However, virus related deaths and hospitalizations remain high. Experts hope they will continue to taper down. That will be difficult though if too many people meet and travel over the holiday season. Scientists have signed off on the plan but note that it may lead to a rise in COVID cases, although the plan will go into effect after schools have already ended the semester, decreasing the risk of in-school transmission. According to Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, the agreement “will offer hope for families and friends who have made many sacrifices over this difficult year.” It is also meant to boost the travel industry, which has been badly hit by the pandemic. Air travel out of the UK is not expected to significantly increase as English travelers are not able to travel to popular destinations like the United States and Canada and must isolate themselves if they travel elsewhere in Europe.
Other European countries like France and Germany are also loosening lockdowns for Christmas and throughout the month. French President Emmanuel Macron outlined his own restriction relaxation plan where nonessential shops can open in early December, and cinemas, museums, and theatres can open in mid-December. Religious ceremonies will be able to host up to 30 people. After December 15th, the lockdown will end, but there will be a curfew every day except on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Travel restrictions will be lifted so families and friends can spend the holidays together. Restaurants will remain closed into January and a night curfew is still in place, however, exceptions will be made for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve so people can “share these moments together among family.”
France’s coronavirus numbers have been declining as well. Although France’s current level of ICU occupancy is similar to what it was in spring when lockdown restrictions were lessened for the first time, France’s hospitals are more saturated now and the announcement follows a one week decline in cases rather than a two week decline. This is worrying, especially depending on how many people travel for Christmas, as this could lead to a rise in cases. If the rise in cases is significant, it could put significant stress on France’s healthcare system, similar to what happened to Italy in March. There are already more patients hospitalized now than there were the last time lockdown restrictions were lifted; a rapid increase in cases and hospitalized patients makes it more difficult to deal with future rises in cases throughout the winter months.
In contrast, German President Angela Merkel has not announced any new plans for a relaxation of regulations for the winter holidays. After a recent meeting of the leaders of Germany’s sixteen states, President Merkel has announced a new lockdown will take effect December 16th until at least January 10th. Non-essential businesses will close and schoolchildren are encouraged to stay home. Merkel blamed Christmas shopping for a “considerable” rise in contact. Businesses such as restaurants, banks, and outlets selling Christmas trees can remain open, but others like hair and nail salons cannot. From December 24th through the 26th, the number of people allowed in a home will relax slightly: households can invite up to four close family members from other households. Merkel says that they want to “prevent an overload of our health systems and that’s why there is an urgent need to take action.”
Germany recently reached 1 million virus cases and Bavaria State Premier Markus Soder recently commented that “the question is whether we can keep this country in this type of half-sleep all the time — or whether we will have to again consider taking a very clear and stricter approach in some areas,” referring to stricter but shorter regulations rather than the partial lockdown that has been in place since November. Although many countries in Europe have found that their “lockdown lite” policies have not been sufficient in slowing transmissions, Germany has had a robust system of testing and tracing. Although they have instituted another lockdown, Germany has fewer coronavirus cases than its neighbors like France and the UK. Germany’s caution should serve them well, especially if we see a rise in cases in the two weeks following Christmas in countries that have looser restrictions.
Although it can be tempting to ease lockdown restrictions, especially when so many businesses are struggling and so many people have COVID fatigue, governments should be very careful about quickly lifting restrictions. As we have seen, coronavirus cases grow exponentially when they are not carefully controlled; countries must be more careful in the winter, when ICU beds are also needed for people with influenza and other illnesses more prevalent in cold weather. Government officials need to walk a fine line between easing the strain on businesses and ensuring public health and safety.
Despite COVID fatigue, the introduction of several effective Coronavirus vaccines has people seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Countries cannot forget that it will take a long time to get citizens vaccinated and until then (even afterwards), some will still get sick. This winter will be very dangerous and should not take news of a vaccine as a signal that they no longer have to practice safe behavior. It is difficult to compare each country’s Christmas response because they all have different cause counts and ICU capacities. Significantly loosening restrictions, as the UK and France have done, could lead to a new wave of infections in the new year, which could put a strain on healthcare systems. Although public opinion is very much in favor of lowering restrictions around the Christmas holidays, policy officials should work closely together with public health officials to ensure that public safety is still of paramount importance at all times of the year.