From behind his Downing Street desk, a self-isolating Boris Johnson proclaimed on Monday that an “escape route” from Covid-19 was now finally in sight.
The UK, which has the highest official Covid-19 death toll in Europe, has agreed to allow “limited additional household bubbling” so families can get together for Christmas.
“Festive bubbles” could allow up to three households to mix between December 23 and 27. They can meet in homes and gardens, as well as places of worship and outdoor public spaces.
However, experts have warned an extra five days of strict lockdown measures will need to be imposed for every single day the rules are relaxed over Christmas. If the rules are loosened for five days, that would mean 25 days of tighter restrictions would then be needed to keep coronavirus infections under control, according to Public Health England.
Like the UK, governments across the rest of Europe – which accounts for a quarter of reported global Covid-19 infections and deaths – are trying to fine-tune restrictions on family life to allow them to celebrate the holidays while minimising the spread of the virus.
It’s a high stakes gamble: relax too little, and they risk civil disobedience and political outrage. Relax too much, and the festive period creates a third wave of infections, just as the second starts to flatten.
Many have unveiled their plans this week, with most striking a similar balancing act to the UK: restricted family gatherings, with festive traditions — like German Christmas markets and Wise Men parades in Spain — widely cancelled.
“Either we break a third wave at Christmas or we make a third wave at Christmas,” Belgian PM Alexander De Croo, who plans to celebrate only with his wife and two children, said on Sunday.
In Italy, which is still scarred from being the epicentre of Covid-19 in the spring, fears of a third wave are dividing prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s cabinet. As the country struggles to curb a surge in deaths and infections, many regions are under partial lockdown, with restrictions due to stay in place until at least December 3.
Some ministers are pushing for strict measures to stay in place until New Year’s Day, while others are demanding shops and schools reopen to give the Italian economy a break, HuffPost Italy reported.
The prime minister told Italian television on Monday night that “Christmas will be different this year,” warning the country couldn’t afford a repeat of the summer relaxation that led to the second wave.
Conte, who is in favour of a partial relaxation over the festive period, wants to allow Christmas shopping and gift giving to boost the economy, suggesting the government could allow limited family meetings and regional travel.
Although details are yet to be confirmed, any Christmas relaxation of restrictions would likely be just for Christmas Eve and neighbouring days, while a strict 10pm curfew would remain.
“We will have to spend the festivities in a more sober way. Big parties, kisses and hugs will not be possible,” Conte said last week.
He also warned people not to ski during the holidays to help fight the pandemic.
French president Emmanuel Macron gave a national address this week and announced that the lockdown could be lifted on December 15 – on the condition that the number of new infections per day fell to 5,000 and patients in intensive care declined to between 2,500 and 3,000.
It is a contrast from the UK, which has refused to set explicit cut-offs for the lifting or imposing of different restrictions, with health secretary Matt Hancock saying that key indicators like infection rate “need to be viewed in the context of how they interact with each other as well as the wider context. [...] Given these sensitivities, it is not possible to set rigid thresholds for these indicators.”
In the face of looming pressure over the economic and mental health impacts of an extended lockdown, Macron announced a phased unwinding of the lockdown, to begin on Saturday with the re-opening of non-essential shops and then theatres, museums and cinemas, though bars and restaurants will have to stay shut until January 20 to avoid triggering a third wave.
After months of some of the toughest lockdowns in Europe, there are concerns the French are losing patience. The possibility of new freedoms in December and the promise of spending Christmas with loved ones could ease tensions, according to a HuffPost France editor.
Macron said people will be free to travel across the country to see their loved ones during the end-of-year holiday and leave home to socialise on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, despite the 9pm curfew around these dates.
But no public gatherings will be allowed on these evenings and ski resorts won’t reopen before January. “The Christmas holidays won’t be the same as before, that’s for sure,” Macron said.
Greece has extended its nationwide lockdown by a week until December 7, as coronavirus cases continue to surge.
An increase in infections since October forced the government to impose the country’s second national shutdown since the pandemic began.
A HuffPost Greece editor said the government is understood to be considering lifting restrictions in time for Christmas, but with some conditions remaining in place, such as a continued ban on travel between regions.
This week the Spanish government said family and social gatherings will be allowed on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, but will be limited to six people. A curfew will also likely be imposed between 1am and 6am on those nights.
The new draft plans recommend that family gatherings be restricted to single households, though meetings of up to six people with other households will be allowed, provided protections are put in place.
Spain has western Europe’s second-highest tally of confirmed coronavirus infections after France, with some 1.5m cases and 46,619 deaths from Covid-19, but Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez has been under pressure to allow a Christmas relaxation.
As in Britain, many of the measures come with safety warnings that are recommendations rather than legal requirements: self-isolating as much as possible before travelling, for instance.
The government recommends avoiding work celebrations, student parties or gatherings at sports clubs, but if they are held, there should be a maximum of six people and take place outside or on terraces “with a maximum of two walls”. The plans also suggest that university students who return home for the holidays should “limit social interactions the days before they return home and take extreme prevention measures”.
Sanchez summed up the balancing act governments face: “We have two wishes: to be with and embrace those we love the most, and the obligation to protect them. Because without a doubt our greatest aspiration is to be able to live and share many more Christmases in the company of our loved ones.”
Germany on Thursday agreed a 10-day relaxation of lockdown rules – twice the length of the UK’s five – over Christmas and the new year.
Chancellor Angel Merkel agreed with leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states late on Wednesday to extend and tighten the coronavirus lockdown until December 20, but ease rules over the Christmas holidays between December 23 and January 1 to let families and friends celebrate together.
However, the capital Berlin, one of the hardest hit cities in the country, has said it would not ease restrictions over Christmas.
Germany imposed a month-long “lockdown-lite” on November 2 to rein in a second wave that is sweeping much of Europe. Bars and restaurants are closed, but schools and shops remain open.
From December 1, private gatherings will be limited to five people from two households. Over Christmas, that number will rise to 10, not counting children, from any number of households – although families are asked to voluntarily avoid social contact for a week ahead of visits.
Further measures include discouraging traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks, and banning them entirely in some popular streets and squares; encouraging employers to let staff work from home between December 23 and January 1; requiring face masks to be worn in front of shops, in parking lots and in most secondary schools; and reducing the number of customers allowed into larger shops.