‘The first duty of the government is to keep citizens safe.’ These are the government’s own words. Yet, despite this almost sacred pledge, the four administrations of the UK have agreed to gamble on relaxing restrictions over Christmas, potentially rewarding Covid-19 with the biggest present of them all.
With any gamble, there are stakes, risks and prizes. The stakes in this case are people’s lives — they could not, therefore, be any higher. As for prizes, there are several that officials seem to be eyeing up. First is the prize of perceived compassion: that citizens see a commitment to balance, moderation, and kindness after the pain of a very difficult year. This seems a noble intention. After all, most people’s wellbeing and mental health would indeed benefit from a dose of social interaction with loved ones. Had no relaxation taken place, the governments in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland would have been roundly criticised, with many families choosing to ignore these rules anyway. So, rather than face the prospect of mass fines or arrests at Christmas — which could not possibly be enforced effectively in any event — the four governments have instead chosen to avoid this scenario. In the months ahead, when restrictions continue or potentially even increase again, politicians can point to their five-day Christmas reprieve to stave off the criticism and claims of disproportionality. That is, no doubt at least, the hope.
Those who argue in favour of the relaxation ask what else could be done in this situation: given so many people are likely to break the rules anyway, is it not better to relax them and save the integrity of rules themselves? After all, breaking restrictions becomes easier after you have done it once. But would it not be better to take a light touch approach, insisting people follow the rules while turning a blind eye to those who do not, rather than inviting a free for all? That seems the most workable alternative to the route we have instead decided to go down.
And what of the risks of a Christmas relaxation themselves? The most obvious is that we will be presenting Covid-19 with a major opportunity to transmit across communities. The main danger in fact begins with Christmas shopping, with higher numbers of people mixing and coming into close contact with each other. After this heightened community interaction, people will then be allowed to mix with their relatives, often those who are elderly and most at risk from the virus. There will also likely be high levels of alcohol consumption which officials have already acknowledged as a threat to social distancing, an argument that was used to justify the 10 p.m. curfew on pubs and restaurants.
It is also worth noting that homes containing two or more families are the fastest-growing household type in the UK. There are more than 780,000 overcrowded homes in England alone, with ethnic minorities far more likely to live in these conditions (particularly Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black Africans) due, in part, to poverty. Many of these homes are also inter-generational and therefore house older adults, again those who are most susceptible to this virus. All this while families across the UK come into close contact with care home residents — those under 65 will be allowed to join their loved ones between 23 and 27 December. The risks here are that these individuals, who are the frailest in our society, will be at significantly increased risk of exposure and will inadvertently carry the virus back home to their care homes, placing themselves and other very vulnerable people in serious danger. Even if your family decides to be cautious and avoid a full-scale Christmas this year, there is a risk that other care home residents will not be.
So, is this Christmas gamble worth it? The answer is clearly no. The hardship of Covid-19 will not be solved by a five-day dose of indoor family cheer — even if it does provide temporary relief. A few days of pleasant normality could well sow the seeds for a third lockdown. Instead, Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont should double-down on their own words and prioritise public safety above all else, including Christmas.