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23 November 2020

How should the government approach Christmas Covid restrictions?

The government favours a top-down approach to coronavirus restrictions, but it should consider communicating risks instead.

By Stephen Bush

England will leave lockdown on 2 December – at least, some parts of it will. Under plans due to be announced in parliament later today, England will return to the system of regional lockdowns: but with tougher rules in place than those prior to the national lockdown. 

Hospitality venues will be closed in Tier 3 areas, other than for delivery and takeaway, while in Tier 2, inter-household mixing in closed spaces will be banned (other than for work meetings and within bubbles). 

Now the United Kingdom’s four governments (UK, Scottish, Welsh, Stormont) are in talks about what rules to have in place for Christmas. 

The reality, because of the important and necessary freedoms to move house or for urgent travel, is that if people want to come together for Christmas, they will. The trouble is that the British government has started to view social distancing solely as something applied from above – which people must be forced into following – when the reality is that to work, it requires passive consent from below. 

Democracies across the world have already seen this difficulty played out around times of their major secular and religious festivals (and the reality is that the reason why Christmas is a logistical nightmare for the government has very little to do with the minority of practising Christians in the United Kingdom, and everything to do with the much larger group of people who celebrate Christmas in a non-religious way or with a token visit to their parents’ church on the day itself). 

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The government’s focus should be on clearly laying out of the risks involved – and it should start by acknowledging, for instance, that while we’ve all had a hard year, if you are lucky enough not to live alone or with strangers, you should at the least think about celebrating Christmas where you are. 

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That would be a change in approach, of course, from the government’s preferred approach of blanket bans and instructions from on high. But it might be a more effective approach than any single set of restrictions or limitations over the holiday period.