Self-Isolating Before Christmas? Good In Theory, Difficult In Practice

Countries around the world are relaxing rules for the festive season. Now we’re being urged to take “preventive self-isolation” before meeting up with loved ones.

The logistics of Christmas this year are unlike any other. Instead of the traditional “who’s cooking the turkey?” questions are almost all about Covid-19, with one main concern: how to stop your family gathering from turning into a Christmas cluster.

In the UK, three households can be together for five days between December 23 and 27. People will not have to self-isolate beforehand, even if someone within their bubble is among the “extremely clinically vulnerable” group deemed most at risk from serious illness.

The government is, however, expected to issue guidance that urges people to reduce unnecessary contact in the run-up to the five-day period. This is also being encouraged by governments across Europe who have announced similar Christmas rule relaxations.

On paper, the principle of ‘preventive self-isolation’ makes sense, both to protect vulnerable loved ones and to provide peace of mind so you can enjoy your holidays. However, according to experts, it’s easier said than done.

One week of isolation, or two?

At two weeks before Christmas, is it too early or too late to self-isolate? In the UK, the quarantine period for infected people and close contacts is generally still 14 days, but countries including France have reduced the isolation period to one week based on updated guidance.

The seven-day period is generally enough time for early symptoms — if any — to appear. It also corresponds to the period when an infected person is contagious, which is estimated to be between seven and 10 days after the onset of symptoms. If a person is therefore unaware that they are a carrier, a one-week isolation period is the minimum required to reduce the risk of transmission.

“Beyond five days, less than 10% of carriers of non-symptomatic viruses are contagious,” Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva said in September.

While the effectiveness of self-isolation in slowing the spread of Covid-19 is unquestioned, epidemiologist Catherine Hill warns the isolation must be absolute, which can prove incredibly restrictive at a time of year when we are usually at our most active.

“Every time you go out, you take a few risks, so the strictest possible isolation is the most effective,” Hill says. This means working from home, and having your groceries delivered — even if supermarkets with required mask-wearing are not considered very high-risk places. But it also means taking your children out of school before the holidays officially begin.

As far as the youngest children are concerned, coronavirus is still largely a mystery. Until now, science has not yet decided on their real capacity to transmit the virus, plus there is the possibility of them being asymptomatic.

Preventive isolation is only truly effective if everyone has followed the same strict rules. “When several members of the same family are more or less cautious, the others should agree to align themselves with the one who is the most cautious,” says Claire Matthieu, a computer scientist at the France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.

If there is a Christmas miracle and families can all agree to respect these numerous constraints, will that be enough to enable them to celebrate ‘normally’ — doing away with social distancing and having hugs and meals for ten, regardless of official recommendations?

Catherine Hill is skeptical: “I wouldn’t advise it, because all it takes is one person to say that they’ve isolated, but in fact, they’ve actually gone to a store or elsewhere, or a child has bumped into the neighbours, and so on. It’s very easy to spread the virus,” the epidemiologist says. “The optimal strategy is to be with the minimum number of people, and to be as careful as possible.”