Christmas preparations are looking different for many this year, but if you’re in an area that is able to plough on with some form of celebration, it’s worth taking steps to make it as safe as possible.
Unfortunately, the virus isn’t taking a holiday break, so vigilance and caution are still very much required.
Indeed, the UK government and scientific experts are urging people to avoid meeting up in person or travelling any distance even where this is still allowed, and to ‘keep it short, keep it small and keep it local’ to stay safe.
What are the latest rules on meeting up for Christmas?
In the UK, restrictions will now be relaxed on Christmas Day only, allowing people to form ‘Christmas bubbles’ of three households (two in Wales and up to eight people from three households in Scotland, with under the age of 12 being exempt).
If you’re under tougher Tier 4 restrictions, affecting mainly London and parts of the South East, you can’t form a Christmas bubble and shouldn’t meet indoors with anyone from outside your immediate household or existing support bubble.
Outdoors, you can only meet one other person who isn’t in your household or existing bubble and you shouldn’t travel to other areas.
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The key concern is that extended Christmas mixing will cause a surge in cases that will be difficult for an already over-burdened NHS to cope with.
If you are planning on meeting up with loved ones this Christmas and are still able to under the new rules, it’s worth thinking ahead about how you can minimise the risk to yourself and your loved ones.
We’ve pulled together some of the top science-backed suggestions from experts to help minimise the risks on the day. Not all of the tips will be realistic for everyone’s situation, so consider what you can reasonably do to limit your risk.
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1. Gather outdoors or in a well-ventilated room
It’s not quite the cosy scenario we imagined for Christmas, but gathering outdoors where possible is much safer than piling into a warm, stuffy room with a group of people.
Aerosol transmission is less likely to happen outdoors (although social distancing is still important) and where there’s good airflow, so potentially infected exhalations can’t linger as much.
If you’re meeting inside, opening a window to let fresh air into the room can make a big difference. Sage recommends opening a window for 10 to 20 minutes every hour or so.
It’s worth warning your guests in advance, so everyone can bring a few extra layers to keep warm.
You can also try to arrange the room so distancing can be maintained (likely to be easier if you keep the number of guests lower) and try to limit the time you spend indoors – for example, you could go for a walk before or after Christmas lunch, or have your pre-lunch drinks in the garden if you can’t face the whole meal outdoors.
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2. Think twice about pre-Christmas COVID-19 tests
It might be tempting to just order a coronavirus test to check whether you’re infected before you meet up with loved ones. But testing is not a silver bullet and you need to be realistic about what results can actually tell you.
NHS coronavirus tests are intended only for those with symptoms, so you’re not supposed to request one if you’re not displaying any. Private tests are an option, but they’re expensive – about £110 to £160 for an at-home or in-store test kit and up to £350 for a home visit.
A PCR swab test can only tell you if you were infected at the time of taking the test, so there’s still the risk that you catch the virus in the intervening time between taking a test and going home for Christmas.
If you go private, do your due diligence – lots of providers have popped up in this space and it can be hard to gauge their accuracy and provenance.
Ultimately, it’s better to limit your interactions with others where possible, and be vigilant about social distancing, hand hygiene and mask wearing in the run-up to meeting up with your Christmas bubble – and getting all other parties to agree to do the same.
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3. Stay safe while shopping for the big day
Supermarkets are always busy at Christmas and things may be even more so this year as people’s plans may be changing at the last minute.
Many shops have implemented systems to limit crowds, and allow elderly or vulnerable shoppers to shop at quieter times. Check before you go, but also try to go outside of traditionally busy times if you can, and where possible shop alone.
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4. Stay vigilant on the hand and surface hygiene
Experts suggest having a hand sanitiser pump by the door for your Christmas bubble guests to use when they arrive and to make sure you apply this vigilance throughout the festive period with frequent hand washing.
This is especially important if you’re preparing food for others. Even with the cleanest of hands, it’s best to forego sharing canapés and serve everyone their own plates, without dipping in and out of a communal dish.
Avoid sharing things such as cutlery and cups or glasses with those outside of your immediate household.
Remember to buy hand sanitiser from a reputable brand, as our hand sanitiser investigation uncovered alcohol hand gels for sale online containing a fraction of their stated alcohol content, which could leave you unprotected.
Keeping on top of cleaning surfaces and other high-contact areas will also help, especially if you have more people confined to a smaller space.
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5. Avoid physical contact where possible
It’s understandable that you may to want to give those you haven’t seen in a long while a big hug or a kiss, but this year it’s best to avoid physical contact.
In that vein, avoid sharing a car with people who are not in your Christmas bubble and avoid making unnecessary stops on your journey.
Sage recommends sitting people from the same household opposite each other where possible, as particles from when you speak are more likely to go in that direction. Try to avoid singing or shouting and as always capture any coughs or sneezes in a tissue or elbow.
Avoid piling all the food on to the dinner table to be passed round from person to person if you can. Having one person plate up in the kitchen is better (and probably much less chaotic anyway).
6. Bring your mask
While it might seem a bit impractical or even just depressing to have the family sat around wearing masks on Christmas Day, the fact is wearing a face covering can greatly reduce the risk when gathering in groups indoors.
Consider this especially if you’ll be seeing elderly or vulnerable relatives or friends, and if you’re going to be spending more time indoors in confined spaces with your Christmas bubble.
If you want to forge ahead with a Christmas game or watch a bit of TV post-meal, wearing a mask is a sensible extra precaution to take.
Of course, you’ll also need a mask if you’re travelling using public transport, or need to pop to the shops or a service station en route.
7. Chat to your guests in advance
Having a chat in advance about what measures you all can take and what everyone feels comfortable with should mean less awkwardness or having to think about it on the day itself.
Everyone has different levels of risk they are comfortable with, so try to take on board any concerns.
It’s worth bearing in mind this winter is considered the most tricky period of the pandemic, and with the continued vaccine rollout and as we move into warmer weather, things should improve – so where it’s possible to postpone bigger get togethers, it’s better to do so.
Consider a virtual or smaller Christmas
Nobody wants to cancel Christmas gatherings. But the simple fact is, the more you can do to minimise time spent in big groups indoors with people from outside your immediate household, the lower the risk will be.
So, think about the ways you can trim down your celebrations using the methods above.