Over the past few weeks, the world sighed a collective sigh of relief as science has gained ground in the fight against Covid-19. With Christmas and New Year approaching, hope spread that the end of 2020 could symbolise humanity's triumph over the most difficult chapter in the pandemic.
While progress remains significant and worthy of celebration, recent news in Europe has checked the world’s optimism. On Saturday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the imposition of "Tier 4" lockdown measures – the most stringent action the government can take to control the virus – on large parts of south-eastern Britain, including the capital, London. For people in these areas, hopes of something akin to a normal Christmas have been dashed.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italy became the latest country to order a Christmas lockdown. In the Netherlands, severe measures have been imposed on Amsterdam for five weeks. Germany will also go into a Christmas lockdown. In France, President Macron continues to recover from the virus, while experts predict no return to normal in the country until autumn 2021.
During a press conference announcing the new restrictions, the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty was asked what he would say to people who had packed their bags to visit family for the festive season. “Unpack them," he replied.
Dr Whitty’s response demonstrates the government's frank assessment of the critical juncture at which Britain now stands. The country’s fears now centre on the rapid spread of a new mutation of the virus, estimated to be up to 70 times more contagious than before. There is also worry in Westminster that people's discipline in adhering to measures is waning. And as Brexit negotiations continue to show no signs of a breakthrough, Mr Johnson is forced to confront the imminent possibility of a no-deal situation with the EU. Such disruption, at the same time as a possible third wave of coronavirus infections, would be immensely difficult to manage. Therefore, however regrettable, it is necessary to rein in this year's celebrations.
All of that said, people should not lose hope. Medical experts predict that the vaccines being rolled out in several countries could be as effective at combatting the new mutation as they are with older strains. The scientific community is discovering more about how the virus works and spreads every day, and that will be crucial to protecting lives and jobs. All of this means that governments can dedicate more effort to planning post-pandemic recovery.
Disruptions to religious celebrations, in addition to personal milestones, across the world are a reality of life with the virus. There is comfort to be sought in reflection on the central messages underpinning them. At the core of the Christmas nativity story is the joy of the arrival of a newborn in a stable during the struggle of a particularly harsh winter. For Muslims, Eid – muted earlier this year due to the pandemic – is the end of Ramadan, a spiritually significant period of fasting intended to remind people of the gifts given to them after the Prophet Mohammed's first revelation.
As we emerge from the worst of the virus, fatigue and a lack of discipline is not an option. This is of global, but also personal significance, as restraint this festive season increases the chance that Christmas 2021 will once again be spent with family and friends. In the meantime, we should bear in mind that in our great traditions, hardship and its lessons amplify our celebrations. Through enduring difficulty we build faith and hope in a better future.