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25 November 2020

The government’s Christmas plan is the worst possible approach

The temporary loosening of regulations, combined with an attempt to funnel people through a tiny travel window, risks disaster on multiple fronts.

By Stephen Bush

Christmas isn’t cancelled. The United Kingdom’s four governments have agreed a plan that will allow most families across the UK to celebrate Christmas in a relatively normal way. Three households will be allowed to travel, meet and socialise together from 23 to 27 December.

There are, of course, some families whose usual plans do not fit in with those regulations: people with three or more adult children who do not live together, divorced families with adult children, and so on. 

The plan has been criticised by several members of Sage, because the virus continues to spread and the change of restrictions risks causing a major spike in infections in January. 

The bigger, more under-appreciated problem may be the logistics of travel. Planned network maintenance works often cause disruptions, and anyone who has ever boarded a train on Christmas Eve – even if only to travel from one part of London to another – will know that they are usually crowded and prone to delays. It’s hard to see how public transport will not be the source of at least one superspreader event. That 27 December, the final day the Christmas measures are in place, is the date a fuller public transport service resumes will create a travel surge, causing even more acute travel difficulties. People will at least be able to stagger their return to their family homes before Christmas on 23 and 24 December.

[See also: Stephen Bush on why Christmas presents a logistical challenge as well as a health one]

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Of course, many people will appreciate the risks of public transport and either rent a car or take round trips to pick up their families, which could result in gridlock and major traffic chaos over the same period. 

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I appreciate that 2020 has been a tough year, but British citizens of other faiths have endured many of their major festivals in lockdown, and I do not believe that British citizens of all faiths and none are less capable of that kind of collective sacrifice than British Hindus, British Muslims or British Jews. Nor do I believe that the average British person is less capable of collective sacrifice than the average Indian or Israeli citizen, the average Chinese citizen or the average citizen of many majority-Muslim countries, all of whom had to endure limits on family reunions. 

The focus of policy from the UK’s four governments should surely be to prioritise the needs of people who live alone or with strangers, whether through a greater degree of flexibility for household bubbles, or simply through a light-touch enforcement of gatherings around major festivals coupled with greater information about the risks of household mixing. A loosening of regulations, accompanied by an attempt to funnel people through a very short and limited travel window seems like the worst possible approach: one that will lead to more time in enclosed spaces, gridlock on our roads and potentially a third spike in infections in January.