England came out of a second lockdown on November 5 and was immediately placed into a Tiered system for the foreseeable future. The question on everyone’s minds – even before this announcement – was what was going to happen to Christmas? Just over a week away, the picture is still a mess of mixed signals with decisions about best practice and risk mainly in the hands of individuals.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, delivered a more cautious message to the country surrounding Christmas festivities. It was emphasised that although (in England at least) the law permits three households to meet forming a “Christmas Bubble” between 23-27 December – it should not be viewed as a target. First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, was clear, stating that the safest version of Christmas, was one whereby Scots stay within their households to keep the transmission of the virus down.
Further, Johnson advised the British public to, “think very carefully about the risks of forming a Christmas bubble” despite the law permitting it. In this way – he was asking the British people to re-assess their Christmas plans, which may have been established way back in November after the second lockdown. In many respects, that was a brighter time, which shortly followed the news that the U.K. would roll out the Pfizer Covid vaccine. Since then, cases have risen across all nations, and caution has been stressed, over the festive period.
Throughout this crisis, we’ve seen cracks starting to emerge within the devolved nation approach to governance with Wales and Scotland taking different paths than England. Coupled with tense Brexit talks, Britain’s way of governance is starting to show weakness. With mixed messaging, different rules, and assessment of risk – it is no wonder that great swathes of the population are at odds with what they can do, and what is safe.
For readers who are scratching their heads at the phrase, “devolved nations” this is simply the process whereby Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland govern themselves over matters such as public services and taxation. Devolution has been part of the U.K. constitution for over 20 years. Still, during the pandemic, it has shed new light on this type of governance to expose weaknesses and a flurry of mixed messaging for the UK public.
In light of all this, what is a Covid Christmas going to look like for the majority of the U.K.?
England is currently in a Tiered system, where regions and countries are placed on Medium, High to Very High alert, depending on the number of cases, transmission, and hospitalisation statistics. Each Tier has a specific set of rules inhabitants must follow – that largely concern socialisation and hospitality.
Most of the country is either in Tier 2 (High Alert) or Tier 3 (Very High Alert), and just Cornwall and the Isle of Wight face the loosest restrictions in Tier 1. At the beginning of the week, the whole of London was placed in Tier 3, which caused a frenzy. Rules under Tier 3 state that you cannot meet socially indoors with anyone you do not live with or have a support bubble with. Additionally, you cannot meet outdoors in a private garden or public venue but (in some places) you can meet with a group of up to 6 in outdoor spaces such as parks. Hospitality venues such as bars, pubs, cafes, and restaurants are closed except for takeaway and delivery – meaning the capital will miss out on the lead up to Christmas and the trade this usually brings.
Despite all the complexities of the Tiered system – for five days during Christmas – it is being swept under the carpet. Legally, those living in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England, will be able to meet with up to three different households over five days. The public messaging has changed to error on the side of caution, however, with plans made, food ordered, and tickets booked to travel – it’s unlikely to change peoples’ plans. The change in the messaging has come because of rising Coronavirus cases across the board. The total number of cases as of this writing in the U.K. stands at 1.9 million with over 65,000 deaths. This is despite two lockdowns and a Tiered system in place – which is meant to control the transmission of the virus.
The daily rate of new infections on December 16, was recorded at 25,161 – suggesting the rate of transmission is still high, despite most of the country being in Tier 2 or Tier 3 restrictions. When this is relaxed over the coming weeks, what will happen to this number? Most likely – it will grow and so will hospitalisations and death rates.
Wales have already said that from Christmas Eve, non-essential retail and hospitality venues will close and the nation will go into a lockdown once the festivities are over. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not hinted at similar measures – but as usual – they will probably follow suit. Despite the emergence of a vaccine, the rising cases across the country still have the capabilities to overwhelm a National Health Service, which is already backlogged with the weight of a year-long pandemic on its shoulders.
With a plethora of mixed messaging from the devolved nations and the Prime Minister himself, decisions over the practicalities of Christmas have primarily been left in the hands of the British public. But the tone and messaging have dramatically changed in the last few days as cases and deaths continue to rise.
Brits must ask themselves one simple question – is Christmas worth the risk this year?