Updated on 2 November: It’s always one step forward, two steps back with Covid-19, isn’t it?
We’d just about come to terms with the fact that social gatherings of more than six people became illegal in September. Then, in an unscheduled public address over the weekend, Boris Johnson announced that we’re going into a second national lockdown.
The new coronavirus restrictions will be imposed from 12.01am on 5 November across the whole of England, explained the prime minister.
This means that pubs, restaurants, gyms, non-essential shops and places of worship will close, but schools, colleges and universities can stay open. We’re urged to work from home, unless we cannot do so. And, of course, meeting indoors or in private gardens will no longer be allowed, although individuals can meet one other person from another household outside in a public place.
Johnson said he expects the lockdown to last until 2 December, after which England’s regional tiered system will be reintroduced.
However, cabinet minister Michael Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that this decision will “obviously be guided by the facts”.
And, as per The Telegraph, environment secretary George Eustice has hammered a similar point home.
“We want people to be able to celebrate Christmas as normal as possible,” he said, “but it is too early to say exactly what situation will become Christmas, and to say what different parts of the country will or will not be able to do.”
Essentially, it seems that, in areas with particularly high levels of infection, pubs and bars could remain closed in order to stop the spread of the virus – and people might not be permitted to mix with other households except their own.
Right. So what does this mean for our holiday plans, then?
I know what you’re thinking. It’s probably something along the lines of: “Christmas is weeks away! And don’t we have more pressing matters to deal with right now?!”
I get it. But we already know that the government isn’t at all opposed to announcing a last-minute lockdown the night before a major religious holiday: Leicester was, as you’ll no doubt recall, placed into an extended lockdown on 29 June, just hours before Eid al-Adha.
Speaking from a purely selfish POV, too, my sister is an NHS nurse, my nan is in the ‘at risk’ category, and my dad is currently working abroad – which means that even the merest whisper of a lockdown extension casts serious doubt over the likelihood I’ll be spending 25 December with all of my family.
Plus, it’s not exactly a whisper anymore, anyway. It’s MPs telling The Times that it will be “very difficult” to end the lockdown if deaths and hospital admissions are still rising. It’s the government’s scientific advisors saying that even if restrictions are briefly relaxed, Christmas will not be normal. It’s Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer telling the BBC there will “be no effective exit on 2 December unless the government uses this time to fix test, trace and isolate”.
And it’s the all-too-authoritative cadence of a medical expert explaining that, without lockdown or social restrictions, a traditional Christmas will pose a “high risk” scenario.
As John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told ITV’s Robert Peston: “The epidemic continues to increase and then we have Christmas. And that is very difficult.
“[Because] what is Christmas? Well it’s meeting with your family very close. Restaurants and pubs and stuff like that.
“It’s all high risk. And it’s all indoors.”
Stressing that the R rate was now above one and the UK was in a “risky period”, Edmunds added that our festive plans could look very different this year.
“We can see the epidemic is taking off again. So I don’t think we’ve hit that sweet spot where we’ve been able to control the epidemic and allow the economy to return to some sort of normality,” he said.
While I’d hate to be accused of scaremongering, it’s important to note that the number of new cases of coronavirus in the UK has started to increase in recent weeks. Indeed, a further 23,254 new confirmed cases of coronavirus were recorded on Sunday 1 November, as well as a further 162 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
Similarly, outbreaks across Europe have seen other countries – including France, the Republic of Ireland, and Germany – reinstate strict lockdown measures.
It’s understandable, then, that it’s not just me feverishly wondering about Christmas.
Over the past few months, I’ve spotted people on social media slowly beginning to grapple with this idea that 2020’s festive celebrations will look very different to those we’ve had before. My friends, too, have begun asking me (as if I’m the Ghost of Christmas Future) what I think is going to happen. And others have found their minds wandering to the ‘worst case scenario’ more and more frequently, too.
“I’m worried that I might get stuck in London and not be able to travel up North,” says Stylist’s Lucy Robson. “But I don’t think they could do that, as they didn’t close the trains last time.”
My dad, too, has already said that he probably won’t be able to coming back to the UK for Christmas if the current quarantine guidelines remain in place.
“It’s not worth it for just a few days,” he says. “We’ll have to sit and have our dinner together over Zoom instead. And we can celebrate Christmas next summer, maybe.”
A former colleague, meanwhile, tells me: “My wife is an NHS nurse, and she was on the Covid frontline earlier this year. If there’s a second wave and she’s working those same wards again, we won’t be able to go see our parents for Christmas. It’s too much of a risk.”
And it’s not just about who we get to visit this Christmas that’s gotten people worried. It’s what we wind up doing, too.
One pal, who prefers not to be named, lets slip that she suspects this year’s office Christmas party will be cancelled.
“We usually hire a restaurant or a pub or something,” she says. “And it’s always pretty naff, and awkward, and too loud, and too hot. And there’s never enough food at the buffet. But still… it’s a big part of Christmas. And, now we’re being told we have to go back to work, I’m already mad at the idea of them cancelling the office party. It’s the best bloody bit of trekking into the city!”
Elsewhere on Facebook, another of my friends is lamenting the early cancellation of her local church’s Christmas carol concert.
“I get why they did it,” she says. “It’s a lot of people in one place, and we’re not really supposed to be singing… but it just won’t be the same without the carols, will it?”
And even Stylist’s Megan Murray, known to many around the office as our very own Buddy the Elf, has abandoned her usual steady stream of optimism.
“I’m the kind of person who loves Christmas,” she tells me (needlessly, of course, as I recall all too well the handmade decorations she strung up around her desk last year). “But when Winter Wonderland was cancelled, I suddenly realised that all of my plans may not actually happen.
“Just because I want a big blowout Christmas to make up for this year’s lockdown summer, it doesn’t mean I’ll get one. In fact, as flu season kicks in… could things get even worse? I think I’m going to keep my head in my hot chocolate and ignore that possibility for now.”
For anyone who, like Megan, is wondering about the potential impact this year’s flu season will have on our Christmas celebrations, it’s worth noting that the rules around coronavirus quarantining are pretty clear-cut: if you have a persistent cough, temperature or lose taste, you need to isolate for at least 10 days. At least.
And if someone you live with (or from your support bubble) displays these very flu-like symptoms, too, we’re expected to self-isolate for 14 days. Which means that, yeah, if we come down with a cold in the weeks running up to the most wonderful time of the year, we can kiss our dreams of a big family gathering goodbye.
All this being said, there’s still some hope of a normal(ish) Christmas.
As the prime minister told Robert Peston during a press briefing on 9 September: “On whether we’re going to get things back to normal at all by Christmas, I’m still hopeful that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas.”
He added that this could be achieved with a lot more “testing”.
As we don’t yet have a viable testing process in place, though, we can’t help wondering what the government is going to say when it comes to our Christmas shopping plans. To our annual habit of flooding public transport so that we can see London’s festive light displays up close. To our burning need to visit a yuletide market. To our penchant for pantomimes.
As already mentioned, Winter Wonderland is off the cards. But what about local events? What about the ice rinks that pop up all over the country? What about the wintry-themed cinemas, club nights, and pop-ups? What about the pubs? That’s where we toast the season with glasses of mulled wine, where we attend overpriced Christmas lunches with colleagues, and where we sit and chat for hours on end with friends over beer after beer after beer.
“I don’t care about any of that,” says one pal, when I broach the subject of a lockdown Christmas with her. “It’s just one Christmas. If we have to give it up so everyone is safe, fine.
“As long as I can chat to everyone on the phone, eat something that I’ve roasted in the oven, and collapse in front of EastEnders with a tub of Quality Street, I’ll count it as a win.”
She’s right. For better or for worse, this will be a very different Christmas. It will either be a time of lockdown and reflection, or a time to come together for a big old celebration, where we do our utmost best to forget all the awfulness of 2020.
Sure, we may not be able to hug. We may not be able to sing (boo, hiss). And, yeah, we might need a Dettol wipe or two handy to wipe down presents before handing them over.
But, by god, at least we’ll be safe. And, to paraphrase the Grinch himself, Christmas doesn’t and shouldn’t rely on pubs, and office parties, and multiple visits to Oxford Street.
Christmas means more than all of that. It’s about togetherness. And so, no matter how we achieve this – be it in person, or over Zoom, or something entirely different – I have a strong suspicion that we’re all going to appreciate those family vibes a lot more than we have Christmases gone by, too.
Images: Gettty/Tim Mossholder/Unsplash