LONDON — There's one thing that most people are agreed upon as the festive season approaches and the coronavirus pandemic continues: Christmas is not going to feel the same this year.
Governments across Europe have been holding meetings in recent days to work out how they can allow families to get together at Christmas without risking a dreaded third spike in coronavirus cases. It comes as mini-lockdowns appear to be putting a cap on a second wave of infections that began after a summer of relaxed restrictions in the region.
From family "bubbles" to no fireworks, the U.K., France, Italy and now Germany have released further details of what will, and will not, be allowed this Christmas and New Year.
Scientists have warned a relaxation of critically important public health measures over the Christmas period could lead to greater transmission of the virus, and potentially further deaths.
Meanwhile, policymakers have sought to underscore the morale-boosting effect of allowing families and friends to meet after a difficult year. There are hopes that the holidays might be able to retain some merriment after all. Here's what Europeans can expect at Christmas 2020:
The four nations that make up the U.K. (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) came to an agreement earlier this week to allow families across the kingdom to get together at Christmas, recognizing that separate policies could play havoc with families spread across Britain.
Publishing the rules on Tuesday, the U.K. government said that restrictions on social gathering will be relaxed between Dec. 23 and 27, allowing up to three households to form an "exclusive 'Christmas bubble.'" Cue lots of rules about "bubbles" from the government, namely:
In addition, you can only continue to meet people who are not in your Christmas bubble outside your home according to the rules in the tier where you are staying.
After a month-long lockdown is lifted on Dec. 2, England will return to a tiered system in which the severity of restrictions on social gatherings will be dictated by the infection rate in that area. In all tiers, from Dec. 2, non-essential shops will be allowed to reopen, as well as gyms, hairdressers and churches. Whether pubs, bars and restaurants are allowed to admit customers will depend on the tier they're in.
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled the Christmas restrictions that will be in place in France, where a second national lockdown will gradually begin to be lifted from Saturday when shops are allowed to reopen.
Then, from Dec. 15, lockdown in France will be lifted further if the health situation permits. This could allow people in France (who under lockdown could not leave their homes without specific reason, to go food shopping, for example) will be able to travel around the country and to see family and friends.
Cinemas and theaters will be allowed to reopen on Dec. 15 although bars, restaurants and gyms will remain closed until later in January.
A curfew will remain in place between 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. but this will not apply on Christmas Eve, or on New Year's Eve, although no big public gatherings will be allowed.
For skiing fans, there might not be such a merry Christmas this year, with President Macron saying in a televised address Tuesday that a decision has not yet been made over whether ski resorts will be allowed to open this year.
Italy's prime minister also set out the country's restrictions, or rather rule relaxations, earlier this week, telling the nation that while he had ruled out big get-togethers at Christmas, the country should not have any so-called high Covid-risk "red zones" by the time of the holidays.
"If the contagion trend continues (downward), there won't be any more red zones in December," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Tuesday, according to ANSA news agency. "But we cannot allow occasions of sociality in the Christmas period, starting with indiscriminate holidays on the snow."
Italy, like France and England, has a tiered system of areas or zones in the country designated as high, medium and low-risk areas. Red zones are deemed the highest Covid-risk and these are currently under a second mini-lockdown with people not allowed to leave their homes unless for specific reasons and most shops and other public venues closed.
If red zones are lifted in time for Christmas, Italians will be able to visit family elsewhere in Italy. For now, however, Calabria, Lombardy, Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta are red zones with residents unable to leave until Dec. 3. As in France, Conte has not made a decision regarding Italian ski resorts.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with federal state leaders on Wednesday to decide on what restrictions to lift for Christmas, just as the number of daily cases of coronavirus and deaths from Covid-19 remain worryingly high in the country that has, until recently, seemingly been less badly affected by the pandemic than its neighbors.
Germany's 16 states, which have largely been allowed to set their own restrictions, came together with Merkel and decided to extend what's been seen as a "lockdown lite" (with shops and schools open but bars and restaurants shut) until Dec. 20, in order that the restrictions can be relaxed over Christmas — before they are then tightened up again into January.
"This is absolutely not the time to sound the all-clear," Merkel said on Wednesday in a press conference after meeting state leaders.
In the run up to Christmas (starting December 1) the number of people that can meet socially will be limited to five, but this will then be raised to 10 people over the Christmas and New Year period (Dec. 23 to Jan. 1) to allow friends and family to meet (children under 14 are exempt from the limit).
Germans are being encouraged to avoid contacts for seven days before Christmas to try to minimize the chance of infection.
New Year's Eve could be a quieter affair in Germany this year, with the letting off of fireworks in public areas banned in "busy streets and squares." Ski tourism has also been banned until at least January 10.