A major festival in a country is not only an opportunity for families to get together: it is also a huge logistical undertaking that tests a nation’s transport system and infrastructure to its limits.
The reason why the United Kingdom’s governments are determined to loosen restrictions over Christmas is not because it is a major Christian holiday (Easter, the more significant event in the Christian calendar, came and went in the spring lockdown) but because it has become a major secular holiday in the UK, one in which most people, regardless of religion, will travel to see one another.
Bluntly it is difficult to see how that logistical challenge can be reconciled with the government’s plan to permit travel during a brief window from 23 December to 27 December. If you have ever taken a train home on 24 December (frankly even if “home” is travelling from one side of London to the other this experience will be not be alien to you) you will know they are crowded, unpleasant and frequently the subject of delays.
On Christmas Day itself and Boxing Day, public transport will itself be unavailable, creating another big bulge on 27 December. It is hard to see how these journeys will not be the site of at least one super-spreader event as far as the novel coronavirus is concerned.
Away from the viral risks of public transport, that many others will turn to their cars – and some will surely hire cars to avoid public transport – creates a logistical challenge. Although the rise of distanced working will mean that more people than usual will be able to travel on the evening of 23 December and that the school term ends, for the vast majority of schools, on 20 December means some families will be able to start travelling earlier in the day, the reality is that both 23 and 24 December will likely see gridlock on the roads – and 27 December even more so.
The United Kingdom’s governments, particularly the UK-wide one, which oversees the vast majority of British people as the de facto devolved government of England, need to switch from talking about Christmas in terms of what it will or won’t permit people to do, and instead to start having a grown-up conversation with the country about its circumstances and risks. They could, for example, encourage people lucky enough not to live alone or with strangers to spend Christmas where they are, or people with younger parents to refrain from travel: to see social distancing not solely as something imposed from above but about equipping people with the information to make choices about their own risk and that of others.
Instead, they risk overseeing a logistical disaster at either end of the travel window and a public health disaster in January.