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16 December 2020

What should the UK’s four governments do about Christmas?

It's too late now to implement most of the measures that could have been put in place for the festive period, but they could look again at the travel window.

By Stephen Bush

What should the United Kingdom’s four governments do about their planned Christmas unlocking? 

The Westminster government has alighted on an unwieldy halfway position: people will still be able to travel, but ministers will spend the next seven days encouraging them not to. 

The Christmas holidays are the biggest annual migration in the United Kingdom, and in normal times, they see people moving from the cities to towns and rural areas. And, of course, it is the cities, and London in particular, that are currently the biggest hotspots of the disease

The nature of government communication makes it hard to change things at this stage, and the contradictory mess of government policy means many of the measures that could have been taken to ease the problem have been stymied or sabotaged.

The government plans to encourage people to self-isolate for at least seven days before travelling on 23 December. That has been made impossible for parents in general because the school term doesn’t end in time for parents or children to self-isolate. The Department for Education has gone so far as to threaten to take English schools to court if they attempt to close early, when the simple solution would be either not to unlock for Christmas or to add an extra five days onto the spring term. 
The government’s main argument is that, had it not loosened restrictions, then people would have taken it upon themselves to do so anyway. This may be true: but the difficult truth for the government is the way it has loosened up has increased the danger.

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The travel window could almost be designed to maximise the number of crowded journeys and to minimise the ability of households to reunite in a safe way. The reality is that the people putting themselves and their families most at risk will be those following the rules and travelling within the travel window, during which service stations, trains and coaches will likely be very full and in which at least one major outbreak is likely. Someone who self-isolated for a fortnight and boarded a train yesterday and who returns to their home on 2 January is in less danger, and their family safer, than someone who boards a train on 23 December and returns on 27 December. 

The government could have asked businesses to actively encourage people working at distance to begin their Christmas journeys early to minimise the number of crowded journeys. It could have started a mass campaign last month about how to minimise risk, as we wrote it should at the time

Given that it hasn’t, and that no government campaign is going to be communicated sufficiently well or in time for people to self-isolate, the most sensible solution to minimise the damage is to rip the back out of the travel window: to mandate train operators to accept tickets booked for 27 December for a further month, and to encourage people to self-isolate before returning, where possible. 

That wouldn’t remove the risks of the Christmas reopening, but it’s probably the only remaining option the government can take that doesn’t first involve inventing a time machine.