The prime minister’s announcement on Monday that the latest lockdown restrictions would end on December 2 was initially welcomed by everyone.
It provided a rare piece of good news in a year when such things have been in vanishingly short supply. Combined with recent announcements on the successful large-scale trials of three different covid vaccines, there was just a glimmer of hope that, if things are not exactly getting better, at least they are not getting any worse, and that if we can only get through this winter, we can begin to hope for better things to come in 2021.
However, as Boris Johnson made abundantly clear, there is still a long way to go. And therefore, the end of lockdown most certainly does not mean the end of restrictions. Nor should it.
The R number if still hovering dangerously around one. The virus continues to circulate widely in the community among all age groups, hospital admissions continue to be far too high. And most tragically of all, the daily death toll continues to mount up.
When we exit lockdown, it will be to one of three toughened regional tiers. For most people in our region outside of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, this will mean waking up to life in tier two. However, to the relief of businesses who have suffered so much this year, and who rely so much on the pre-Christmas trade, non-essential shops will be able to re-open. The rule of six will allow some measure of social mixing outdoors, grassroots sport will be able to start up again, and there will even be very limited numbers of spectators allowed in many sports. But pubs will only be allowed to serve alcohol with a meal, although at least the 10 pm curfew will be replaced with a more flexible approach, with premises closing their doors at 11pm.
All this, however, will be of little comfort for the people of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire who will find themselves subject to the more substantial restrictions of tier
three, which will see indoor entertainment venues closed, and the hospitality sector restricted
to delivery or takeaway service.
The danger remains that if people do not follow the rules, maintain social distancing and good hygiene practice, and continue to act sensibly, other areas could fall all too easily into this more restrictive third tier, which would inch us all towards a version of lockdown lite, which no-one wants to see.
Whichever tier of new restrictions are applied in different parts of our region, the question that is uppermost in everyone’s mind is, of course, what will happen at Christmas. In the key part
of his announcement on Monday, the prime minister acknowledged that. “We all want some
kind of Christmas.” he said. “We need it and we certainly feel we deserve it.”
Few would argue with that statement. The ability to celebrate the festive season in some
form feels like a way to get something back for all the sacrifices millions have made during this unprecedented year. And indeed, Boris Johnson held out the hope that. “By maintaining the pressure on the virus, we can enable people to see more of their family and friends over Christmas,” he said.
However, he made it clear that Christmas could in no sense be normal this year. “What we do not want,” he said, “is to throw caution to the wind and allow the virus to flare up once again, forcing us all back into lockdown in January.”
The best that we can look forward to is some form of short Christmas truce in the restrictions, allowing more people to be together on Christmas Day. That said, people in tier three areas are being advised not to travel outside their region, even on this special occasion. But we will all have the opportunity to spend the day together in more extended family groups, within what has quickly become known as a “Christmas bubble” of members of up to three households. It has been suggested that this bubble should contain no more than eight people over the age of 12.
However, as the PM made clear, the virus does not recognise local boundaries and temporary truces. It continues its dire work day in and day out. So, if we wish to avoid a January spike in cases or, dare anyone even think it, a third national lockdown, we are all going to need to exercise caution and use our common sense.
Just because we are to be given permission to meet with older relatives, who we may have spent little time with this year, does not mean that we should necessarily exercise that right.
Family members who are vulnerable remain vulnerable whatever set of rules apply, and whatever truce may be in force. The key is for families to talk in advance of the holiday. And now is the time for those conversations, before too many expectations have been raised, and assumptions made, before too many promises have been made that we may not be able to keep.
We need to discuss with the wider family what we would like to do for the holiday if things remain as they are, if the tiers stay the same, and if the infection rate where we live stays as it is. We then need to think about what our plans would look like if things got a little better between now and Christmas, following the government’s next promised review of the situation on December 16th. But, above all, we need to have an honest conversation about what would happen to our plans if things got worse in the next month, as we all sincerely hope will not be the case.
The government has urged everyone thinking of travelling in the run up to Christmas to plan carefully. Public transport will inevitably be busier than for a while, if more people suddenly
resume their pre-Christmas shopping spree that was so suddenly suspended after those three
manic days a month ago.
People need to find ways to stagger journeys, to avoid busy times, and do everything they can to avoid crowded spaces in our cities, and busy buses and trains. If ever there was a time to embrace the great benefits of shopping locally, in our excellent smaller high streets, then surely this is it.
And as Christmas itself approaches, people need to plan their journeys carefully, taking notice of the warning that capacity restrictions may well apply on the rail network, and that major engineering work is planned over the holiday in some areas.
But this advice is part of a wider message this December. Christmas never was a holiday where spontaneity was a big thing. Over the years, it has increasingly felt more like a military operation, with its logistical and practical challenges, to get everyone and everything in the right place at the right time, in the right way. That fact will be even more true this year.
We all need to think ahead and plan for all kinds of eventuality, knowing that so many people, from farmers, food producers, shop staff, delivery workers, transport staff and so many others are doing everything they can to help us create some kind of festive season this year.
Above all, this Christmas will be a test on all of us. As any true liberal will tell you, the state should always try to give people the chance to decide on their own course of action, subject to
its impact on other people. Within the necessary restrictions that remain in place, we are being
given some degree of choice as to how we celebrate this coming holiday, especially the extent
to which we involve our older or more vulnerable family members, many of whom have been
shielding for long periods this year.
We will be offered all kinds of advice on how to make that decision, from government and from the scientists, including through a major public information campaign. Hopefully, we will get clear guidance to allow us to make what the PM called: “A careful judgment about the risk of visiting elderly relatives.” But this time, ultimately the decision is for each of us, one person, one household and one family at a time. This Christmas cannot be normal; it cannot be the celebration we have been used to spending, with all those we have been used to spending it with. But if everyone works together, plans carefully, and continues to follow the rules, we can yet enjoy a short precious interlude of togetherness, joy and peace, to give us renewed hope to get through the winter ahead, and look forward to better times in the spring.
As the holiday approaches, it is as well to keep our expectations low, but our hopes high. Let us be optimistic but cautious, listen to advice, avoid the crowds whenever we can, be sensible
and follow the rules. And, above all, let us all hope for the best.
Tentatively, nervously even, maybe we can finally begin to allow ourselves to believe it: Christmas is coming.