A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine received an email from her dad. (He communicates with all of his children via email; it’s one of his quirks.) His message, even if he phrased it less bluntly than this, was simple: “don’t come home for Christmas”.
That message has reverberated among my friends from home in the past few weeks, after the Republic of Ireland’s chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, said that travelling home for Christmas would be considered non-essential travel, and that non-essential travel is to be avoided. Leo Varadkar, the former Taoiseach, now Tánaiste, and other government figures, have delivered a watered-down version of the same message, warning that it is “too soon” for Irish people abroad to book flights home. The message, as friends and newspaper headlines have paraphrased it, is: “if you’re Irish abroad, don’t come home for Christmas”.
My friend and I are among the many Northern Irish people living in England, Scotland or Wales who currently find themselves at the strange intersection of two very different government messages. While the Irish government says that travel into the country is the single greatest risk to its efforts to contain the second wave of coronavirus, and that travel within the republic should be kept to within a 5km radius, the British government, in agreement with the devolved administrations, will allow up to three households to travel, meet and socialise together between the 23 and 27 December, across the UK.
My friend, exposed to both the British and Irish messaging on this issue (as everyone from Northern Ireland is, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on circumstances and fundamental questions of identity), is at the sharp end of what everyone in the UK is experiencing at present. With the British government’s plans for the Christmas period prompting warnings from scientists about a third wave of Covid cases, it falls to individuals, more so than at any point in our coronavirus response to date, to judge what is appropriate behaviour. Whether we should go home for Christmas has become a question of personal ethics.
[see also: How fair are the new Covid-19 tiers?]
Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, and an adviser to the Scottish government on its coronavirus response, has been one of many prominent public health experts making the clear and uncomfortable case against easing restrictions for Christmas. “We’re so close to an era with mass testing, therapeutics and several vaccines,” she tweeted on 23 November as news of eased restrictions for Christmas first broke. “Why risk getting infected and infecting others over the holidays? Delaying by a few months is perfectly rational given solutions within sight in the spring.” It is an argument being made around the world: any new coronavirus cases that can be held off now are cases that can be held off forever, as the successful development of a vaccine signals that the final push to contain the virus has begun. Why risk it all now, when by the spring, between the vaccine rollouts, improved treatments, mass testing and warmer temperatures, gathering with loved ones will be an undertaking of significantly lower risk? And what’s so bad about skipping one Christmas, anyway?
Except many people will tell you it isn’t that simple. This has been an extraordinarily hard year, for different people in different ways, and going home for Christmas is one of the most emotive ideas in English-speaking culture. Originally recorded in 1943, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Bing Crosby came out at another time of grief, hardship and uncertainty, and remains one of the most popular Christmas songs. Rallying together is the instinctive reaction in difficult times; but in this case, staying apart is the battle. Many people will feel they need to see friends and family this Christmas, whether they are lonely, ill, grieving, exhausted from work on the front line, drained by financial precarity or worn down by months of having less to look forward to and reduced human contact. What makes one person more deserving of a happy Christmas than another? We can each make a personal sliding scale of worthiness, and decide where we fit onto it: an assessment of how bad a year we have had, how much we need to see loved ones, how low our and others’ risk is, how safe the logistical and practical arrangements are – even, in some cases, how bad the virus is (a bad idea). But it is entirely subjective, and the personalised approach will inevitably cause the burden of sacrifice to fall unevenly, as some choose riskier, more social Christmases and others practise fervid self-denial.
When the British government was criticised earlier this year for the shaky transition from the “stay at home” message to “stay alert”, the case being made to journalists was that the greater confusion was, to an extent, unavoidable, even intentional. It signalled the gradual shift of responsibility away from government and onto the individual, government figures argued. In practice, that didn’t really happen. While certain persuasive pieces have made the case for a more sophisticated conversation about risk and the role of individual judgement in planning a more Covid-secure lifestyle, the UK government’s approach has continued to be characterised by a top-down, rules-led approach, with an accompanying public focus on loopholes.
Except, that is, for this final policy obstacle. The government has calculated that if people are prepared to break the rules for Christmas anyway (and it’s not actually clear that they would), it is better to mitigate the risk as much as possible by introducing much looser restrictions that people may actually stick to, rather than harsher rules that lead to higher, and unaccounted for, non-compliance.
But now the warnings from scientists and public health experts – and the clear contrast with the approach in other countries, like the Republic of Ireland – mean that people have to decide whether they should take advantage of these looser rules. Only at the 11th hour of Britain’s coronavirus response has the burden of decision-making been shifted onto individuals, not because of any deliberate decision on the part of government to devolve responsibility for this issue, but because individuals themselves have to decide whether the government’s restrictions for Christmas are enough.
How strange that, as we approach the biggest hurdle left before the crisis can end, the power lies with us.