- Family gatherings at Christmas are not a certainty this year.
- Governments are looking at whether to ease coronavirus restrictions to allow get-togethers.
- One official from the World Health Organization recommended Thursday that outside gatherings could be an option, despite the cold conditions in the Northern Hemisphere.
LONDON — Scientists and governments are pondering how and whether families should get together during the holidays, potentially relaxing lockdowns and social-distancing rules to do so.
The fear is that relaxing the rules risks further spikes in coronavirus infections at a time when many countries are seeing a peak, and potentially a decline, in the number of cases.
On the other hand, allowing families to get together will boost morale after a difficult year of much anxiety, loss and sacrifice due to the pandemic.
One official from the World Health Organization recommended Thursday that outdoor gatherings could be an option, despite the cold conditions in the Northern Hemisphere.
"It will be a different Christmas, but that does not mean that it cannot be a merry one," Dr. Hans Kluge, regional director of WHO's Europe office, said in an online broadcast Thursday.
Kluge noted that during the recent religious celebrations of Ramadan and Diwali, people had turned to technology to get together, with virtual community celebrations online. As Christmas approaches, he said, the public should consider whether getting together with loved ones was prudent.
"Cherish the festive season with those close to you. If it's a large gathering, with vulnerable people, you might postpone that gathering until you can safely gather. Despite the cold, if local restrictions permit, gather outside with loved ones for picnics in the park," he said.
The debate over whether to relax restrictions is certainly raging in the U.K. with government advisors warning that every day that restrictions are lifted, two days of tighter restrictions would be required.
Dr. Susan Hopkins, a Public Health England director, said at a government briefing on Wednesday that she was keen for Christmas to be "as close to normal as possible" but that meant everyone had to make a big effort to conform to a month-long lockdown currently in place in the U.K. until Dec. 2.
"Coming into Christmas we need to be very careful about the number of contacts that we have, to reduce transmission (of the virus) before Christmas."
Fuel on the fire
Not all government scientific advisors are happy about the prospect of relaxing restrictions. One scientist who advises the U.K. government commented Thursday that households socializing at Christmas posed "substantial risks."
"Mixing at Christmas does pose substantial risks, particularly in terms of bringing together generations with high incidence of infection with the older generations who currently have much lower levels of infection and are at most risk of dying if they catch Covid," Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, told the BBC's Radio 4.
He added that "too much emphasis" was being put on having a near-normal Christmas. "We know respiratory infections peak in January, so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this."
There is talk that restrictions could be relaxed for several days over the Christmas period, but they would be tightened afterward. The U.K. government has remained tight-lipped, however, and is expected to make a decision when the epidemiological situation is clearer in early December, when a month-long lockdown is lifted.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Sky News on Thursday that rules might need to be tightened now to allow Christmas get-togethers to go ahead: "What he's got to do, Boris Johnson, is say, 'Look, if there is any doubt about whether we can lower the restrictions at Christmas, we've got to act now'."