LONDON — From behind his Downing Street desk, a self-isolating U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson proclaimed on Monday that an “escape route” from COVID-19 was now finally in sight.
“We must hold out against the virus until testing and vaccines come to our rescue and reduce the need for restrictions,” Johnson said. ”‘Tis the season to be jolly, but ’tis also the season to be jolly careful, especially with elderly relatives,” he added later.
Governments across the continent, which accounts for a quarter of reported global COVID-19 infections and deaths, are trying to fine-tune restrictions on public life to allow families to celebrate the holidays while minimizing the spread of the virus.
It’s a high stakes gamble: relax too little, and governments 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 countries are due to unveil their plans this week, with most striking a similar balancing act: restricted family gatherings, with festive traditions — like German Christmas markets and Wise Men parades in Spain — widely canceled.
“Either we break a third wave at Christmas or we make a third wave at Christmas,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who plans to celebrate only with his wife and two children, said Sunday.
The U.K., 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 four households to mix for “a small number of days,” though the exact details haven’t yet been announced.
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.
Asked about the scientists’ suggestions of tighter restrictions before and after any Christmas “relaxation,” a spokesperson for Johnson said last week that it was the prime minister’s “clear intent” for the public to have as normal a break as possible, HuffPost UK reported.
Johnson announced on Monday that a toughened three-tier system will be reintroduced at one minute past midnight on Dec. 2, when England’s current lockdown ends, but the measures are not expected to extend to Christmas.
In Italy, which is still scarred from being the epicenter 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 Dec. 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, a HuffPost Italy editor reported.
Giving the first hints of what could be expected, Conte, who is in favor of a partial relaxation, told Italian television 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 added that he wanted to allow Christmas shopping and gift giving to boost the economy, and suggested the government could allow limited family meetings and regional travel, but the details had yet to be established.
“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.
French President Emmanuel Macron is due to give a national address Tuesday evening, and is understood to be considering three deadlines in the next phase of his COVID-19 plan.
In the face of looming pressure over the economic and mental health impacts of an extended lockdown, Macron favors easing confinement, but with new restrictions on retailers and the continued closure of bars and restaurants.
“There will be three steps to [lockdown] easing in view of the health situation and of risks tied to some businesses: a first step around December 1, then before the year-end holidays, and then from January 2021,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.
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.
Greece reported a new daily record of 108 coronavirus-related deaths on Saturday, but the government has been tight-lipped on whether it will relax restrictions for Christmas.
A national lockdown, which is due to end Nov. 30, is likely to be extended to mid-December. “Lifting the lockdown on December 1 does not seem realistic right now,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas told state TV ERT on Friday.
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.
The Spanish government said Tuesday morning that family and social gatherings will be allowed on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, but are limited to six people. A curfew will also likely be imposed between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. 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 1.5 million cases and 46,619 deaths from COVID-19, but Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has been under pressure to allow a Christmas relaxation.
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 to 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.”
With files from Reuters.
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