Covid-19 has stolen Europe's Christmas

Fresh lockdowns will hit hard, but a cautious holiday season will mean a happier new year

Shoppers, some wearing a face mask or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, look at shop window displays inside a christmas-themed Burlington Arcade in London on December 19, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a "stay at home" order for London and southeast England to slow a new coronavirus strain that is significantly more infectious. The new strain of the virus "does appear to be passed on significantly more easily," Johnson said at a televised briefing. He ordered new restrictions for London and south-eastern England from Sunday, saying that under the new "tier four" rules, "residents in those areas must stay at home" at least until December 30. / AFP / Tolga Akmen
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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.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14: British Health Secretary Matt Hancock (R) and Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty arrive to hold a remote press conference to update the nation on the covid-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street on December 14, 2020 in London, England. The British capital is to move into the highest level of anti-virus restrictions. From Wednesday London will go into "tier three" restrictions, which force the closure of theatres and ban people from eating out at restaurants or drinking in pubs, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament. (Photo by Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock and UK chief medical officer Christ Whitty on their way to deliver yet more bad news to the British people.Getty Images
Restraint this festive season increases the chance that Christmas 2021 will be spent with family and friends.

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.