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All through the spring of 2020, and into the summer, Michelle Mcallister carefully shielded her husband, James Mcallister. Michelle, 39, who lives in the Wednesfield area of Wolverhampton, was a full-time carer to James, 52. A former used car dealer, James had heart failure and had used a colostomy bag since a stomach ulcer burst in 2016. He was unable to work and was often in pain, reliant on a walking stick and occasionally a wheelchair to get around.
The couple had three children: Luke, 22, Lauren, 19, and Morgan, 10. (Only the girls, Lauren and Morgan, lived with their parents.) When the kids came home from school or work, Michelle would make them sanitise their hands at a makeshift station she had improvised on a table by the front door. Only Michelle did the food shopping, as quickly as she could, to minimise exposure to the virus. Throughout the first wave, into the winter, Michelle kept James safe. “I thought that if James got Covid he would be really poorly or it would kill him,” Michelle says. “He was the one person I was worried about.”
But then Christmas rolled around and Michelle and her family began making plans. They were reassured by the government’s announcement that Christmas mixing was permissible, provided they bubbled with only three households for a five-day period. “I thought: ‘Things are getting back to normal now, we can start living again,’” she says.
Her parents’ wedding anniversary falls on 23 December, so they planned to visit then, along with her brother’s family. Then, on Christmas Day, there would be a family lunch, also at her mum’s house. After almost a year under virtual house arrest, James was delighted. “He was really looking forward to it,” says Michelle.
Looking back, her decision to meet up is the biggest regret of her life. “We should have known better,” she says. “We shouldn’t have listened to what they were saying … I wish to God we’d just listened to ourselves and thought: ‘No way, we aren’t going to mix.’ I really do.”
When the prime minister, Boris Johnson, put England into a second national lockdown on 31 October 2020, his stated ambition was to enable families to gather for Christmas. “Christmas is going to be different this year, perhaps very different, but it’s my sincere hope and belief that by taking tough action now we can allow families across the country to be together,” Johnson said.
The second lockdown was effective at suppressing case numbers. On the day England emerged from it, 2 December, there were 16,170 throughout the UK, down from a peak of 33,470 on 12 November. But by 9 December, the number of new cases began creeping up again: 16,578 that day; 20,964 the following one; 21,672 the day after that. The trajectory was clear. The country was entering a third wave of the pandemic.
Despite this, the government continued to insist that Christmas mixing would be allowed in England, in bubbles of three households, for a five-day period from 23 December. In anticipation, Christmas shoppers thronged the streets.
Other countries had cancelled or pared back their cultural or religious festivals. The Chinese government cancelled lunar new year in January 2020, usually the cause of the world’s biggest annual migration. Had it not done so, Chinese cases could have been 67 times higher, according to researchers from Fudan University and the University of Southampton. Only 10,000 pilgrims were allowed to travel to Mecca for the hajj – usually, more than 2 million people do so. In April 2020, Israel banned household mixing during Passover.
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In England, by mid-November, a growing chorus of voices had begun to warn that permitting households to mix over the Christmas period would be a calamitous error. Speaking on Newsnight on 18 November, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member and epidemiologist Prof Andrew Hayward warned against it. “I just couldn’t understand why the government would be essentially encouraging people to mix for up to five days, when the rest of the messaging was around the need for social distancing,” says Hayward now, speaking in a personal capacity. “That seemed reckless, to be honest.”