LONDON – In a year of tough decisions on how to fight the coronavirus, perhaps none has proven so tormented Prime Minister Boris Johnson as to forbid the British from banding together for a little Christmas.
British tabloids have been speculating for weeks that Mr Johnson would be forced to “cancel Christmas”. Some noted that he would be the first British leader to do so since Oliver Cromwell attempted to stamp out Christmas during the ascetic days of the Puritan movement in the mid-17th century.
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson kept his promise to lift some important restrictions for some precious days between December 23rd and 27th – a decision that confirms his deep-seated desire not to be seen as the Ebenezer Scrooge of Downing Street as well as the atavistic The attraction of the Christmas holidays in this otherwise secular country.
Mr Johnson has not wavered even after recent cases in London, prompting the government to keep the capital subject to stricter rules through December 23. He also did not retreat after two UK medical journals warned of the potentially dire consequences of easing measures over Christmas.
His decision sets him apart from executives in other European countries who appreciate the season as much as Great Britain does.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel imposed a nationwide lockdown that will extend through December 25 and erased hopes of redress after the country’s popular Christmas markets closed earlier this month. The Netherlands and the Czech Republic have also imposed bans, while Italy is leaning towards one.
“The Christmas debate really highlighted the dispute between those who believe death prevention is at stake and those who believe there must be other considerations,” said Jonathan Sumption, a historian and former Colonel judge UK Court of Justice loudly criticizing the locks.
Christmas, he said, “is now largely a non-religious festival, but it takes much of the resonance of the family reunions Thanksgiving has in the United States,” making it a festival that transcends cultural and religious boundaries.
Gather children and grandparents around a Christmas table – beaming with brandy-soaked pudding; alive with the pop of Christmas crackers – has such an appeal to the British popular imagination, said Mr Sumption, that even if the government imposed a ban, many would simply disregard it.
Mr. Johnson seemed to recognize that reality. In a press conference, he asked the British to exercise caution in their social interactions by keeping family celebrations small and brief and postponing visits to grandparents and other elderly people until after vaccination. But he said he doesn’t want to “criminalize” those who have already made plans to spend time with their families.
“We don’t want to cancel Christmas,” he said. “That would be frankly inhuman and would go against the instincts of the majority of the people in this country.”
It’s clearly against his instincts. The Prime Minister complained that he had to take such a “prescriptive” approach and even cited the dreaded example of Cromwell himself. As early as March, he waited a week longer than most European countries to impose a lockdown. In November, after a second wave of infections, he moved more slowly than other leaders to impose new restrictions.
As is so often the case, Mr. Johnson tried to lift the mood with humor. “Have a merry little Christmas, but this year, unfortunately, preferably a very little Christmas,” he said.
Changing course at this late stage would only have deepened the confusion, Mr Johnson’s lawyers said. After 10 months of pandemic, common sense could be entrusted to the public.
The net result, however, is a messed up situation where the government’s rules and guidelines diverged at Christmas. The Scottish authorities recommend stricter restrictions than their counterparts in England. The law is changing in Wales, where a new lockdown threatens enforce tougher measures even during the festive season. All of this creates the conditions for medical experts to fear that infections could increase after vacation.
The British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal published a joint editorial this week calling on Britain to follow Germany’s example. They predicted that there could be nearly 19,000 people in hospitals by the end of the year – similar to where the pandemic began in early April at the height of the deadly first wave.
“We believe the government will fall into another major mistake that will cost many lives,” the magazines read.
Medical experts pointed to the explosion in cases in the United States after Thanksgiving as an omen of what Britain could expect in January. The spread of infections in London, as well as the south and east, made tens of thousands of people carry the virus to less affected parts of the country.
While experts said they understood how to give people a reward at the end of a busy year, the introduction of the Pfizer vaccine meant they only had to endure one final phase of withdrawal before relief set in.
“I saw both sides of this debate a few weeks ago,” said Devi Sridhar, director of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “Now I’m convinced it’s a bad idea.”
For Mr Johnson, a leader who craves approval, the paradox is that the public seems to support a tougher approach. According to a recent survey by Ipsos MORI, almost half of those surveyed said the Christmas rules were not strict enough. About two in five said they were right and only 10 percent said they were too tough.
These results may seem surprising given the UK’s deep attachment to Christmas. The festivities span two days, with December 26th also being a national holiday known as Boxing Day. Some date the extravagant Christmas party to the Victorian era when it began symbolize some of the common values of the nation.
“It was seen to symbolize Britain’s love for home and family, respect for tradition and past, and a common way of life in a society separated by class and politics,” said Martin Johnes, professor of history at the University of Swansea.
“During World War II,” he said, “some said it was important to celebrate Christmas because it encapsulated everything that people fought for.”
Giles Fraser, the rector of St. Mary’s Church in Newington, south London, agreed that Christmas was “central to the cultural psyche” – so much so that he said he was not sure whether the politicians were making the decisions meet, fully appreciate how central it was to people’s morale.
Mr Fraser, who works in economically disadvantaged parts of London, said the need for celebration was particularly acute this year following the death, illness and job loss from the pandemic. His own community recently suffered a blow when the community hall collapsed after an alleged arson attack.
For Mr. Fraser, the pandemic meant planning compromises like moving Christmas carols outside of the church. But canceling Christmas would be “an existential blow to people’s welfare in ways that may not be understood elsewhere,” he said. “That’s why politicians are reluctant to accept it.”
“I will feel very rebellious,” he added, “if the government tells me that I am not allowed to.”