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Should we get together with older loved ones at Christmas this year?

Two figures in silhouette in front of a Christmas tree

Difficult decisions

With coronavirus cases rising across many areas of the UK, Charity Director Caroline Abrahams asks: is it safe to meet up with older friends and relatives this Christmas?



I wonder if Ministers are now regretting announcing a few weeks ago that the pandemic restrictions will be loosened for 5 days over Christmas.

At the time of writing, Germany and Holland have decided to ‘lock down’ over the festive season and neighbouring countries are considering it. With COVID-19 cases on the rise here too there’s a question over whether the UK should and will decide to follow suit.

This is so tough for us all, and it’s tougher still for older people: having lived with the very real threat of the virus for the best part of a year now, with Christmas coming many will be looking forward enormously to getting together with family and friends again. The question is, is it safe to do so?

How should we decide what to do?

Difficult conversations are no doubt going on about this throughout the land, as people try to weigh up what the best thing is to do, given their own individual circumstances. No one wants to pass on a potentially lethal virus to an older loved one, but equally there will be some older people who believe they are not long for this world and for whom being able to touch and hold their loved ones this Christmas feels like a risk worth taking.

Part of the problem is that after 10 incredibly difficult months we have finally got some good news about vaccines. Psychologically the inclination is to ‘relax’, even though we all know in our heart of hearts that it will take some time – several months at least - before everyone at significant risk from COVID-19 can be immunised. We want relief now, and knowing it is still not quite within reach is hard.

The reality is there isn’t a single, ‘right’ approach for everyone because our situations differ so much, but for what it’s worth I myself am continuing to be very cautious, to protect my 92-year-old, profoundly frail and bedbound mum as best I can. Older people often tell me “we’ve all got to die of something” – and they’re absolutely right, of course – but personally I’d rather it wasn’t COVID-19. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

For this reason we’ll not be having anyone joining us from beyond our household over Christmas this year. Those people who are going ahead with a family gathering involving older relatives would be well advised to self-isolate or at least minimise their social contacts between now and Christmas. One of my colleagues is doing precisely this – self-isolating for a fortnight before going to stay with her ageing parents over the 5 days.

If you want to read about the science behind the trade-offs we all need to consider this Christmas please do read my esteemed colleague Dr Elizabeth Webb’s illuminating blog.

Things to think about when making Christmas plans

Dr Elizabeth Webb discusses the questions families should be asking themselves to make an informed decision about plans this Christmas.

To ‘Bubble’ or not this Christmas

Meanwhile, my colleague Hannah has also been considering what her family should do:

“When he was 2 my son renamed my mother in law. She is now known to us all as Bubble. Bubble is his only living grandparent and he is her sole grandchild.

"Earlier this year we formed a support bubble with Bubble and after the long first lockdown it was a pleasure to see her when she came to stay for a week on a couple of separate occasions. My son spent hours beating her at board games and our dog enjoyed walks and attention from her favourite person. But we have made the difficult decision not to see Bubble this Christmas. We’ll really miss her and the dog will be devastated. We know we won’t have lots more Christmases together but the risk feels too high. Bubble is fit and healthy but she is in her late seventies and has a couple of health issues that mean for her COVID-19 presents a deadly threat.

"We will video call Bubble on Christmas day instead. It will be really sad not to be together and I know she will desperately miss kissing and cuddling her grandson and being thrashed at Monopoly. However we know that the risks are higher than earlier in the year when we kept the windows and doors open and tried to spend quite a bit of time outside, whereas over Christmas we would be likely to spend a lot of time in warm rooms together. This year we will have Christmas remotely and look forward to getting together next year when it is safer. The Monopoly board will still be waiting."

Hannah made this decision before the news came that cases are sharply on the rise, including in the South East where she lives with her family. If she was cautious before she will be all the more so now, I’m sure, and I really can’t say I blame her.

Will the current Christmas guidance hold?

The fact that – at the moment at least – the Government has decided to keep its Christmas guidance in place and not tighten it is placing a lot of responsibility on individuals’ shoulders. On the one hand, it is completely permissible to spend time over Christmas with older loved ones if you stay within the rules. On the other, Ministers have been advising that these rules are ‘the furthest’ people should go and that they hope that we will stay ‘well’ within them.

Yes, we all want the right to choose but it isn’t easy. Whether Ministers will find their position is sustainable over the next few days remains to be seen.

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Last updated: Dec 05 2023

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