A cruel Christmas for absent friends outside the bubble – David Behrens

At my local Morrisons on Tuesday, people were emptying the booze shelves as if their lives were about to end. I’ve seen looters taking more time over their choices.

Most will have been taking it home because they know it’s the only place they’ll be able to get plastered this Christmas. Others will have needed the Dutch courage just to get their heads around the quarantine rules.

I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs, and thanks to Matt Hancock’s mysterious moving goalposts, I don’t believe anyone else does, either.

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The extent to which making plans is pointless right now was demonstrated to me when Mrs B booked a hotel room in order to break the journey involved in collecting the remaining member of our Christmas bubble. The reservation was not refundable, yet the hotel felt compelled to warn us not to turn up if we were travelling from a different tier. As both our tier and theirs were subject to change between now and Christmas, it has made the holiday catering arrangements something of a lottery. We might as well have saved the hotel bill and put the money on the 3.30 at Doncaster.

A woman in a face mask walks past Christmas lights outside a closed pub

But while the comings and goings in the Behrens household play out like a Whitehall farce, the disruption to others will veer closer to tragedy. This is especially true of older generations for whom Christmas is a rare chance to be with beloved grandchildren. Large families will have to choose between relatives this year, perhaps reopening old arguments and painful divisions that will fester for Christmases to come. Even modest gatherings of just a few children will be big enough to cruelly burst someone’s bubble.

These little groups into which we are supposed to huddle are roughly the same size as the one at Bethlehem, so no-one can say they are fundamentally unChristmassy. Yet the arrangements are the antithesis of the holiday as we know it – not just because they are impractical, ineffective and arbitrary but because they are mean.

For that reason, it’s already clear that not everyone is taking any notice. The roads and car parks seem to be as busy as they were last December, so people must be going somewhere. And as cities bounce up and down the tiers with roughly the same regularity as Huddersfield Town in the football league, who is to stop them? The police tried to when the national lockdown ended two weeks ago – treating drivers as if they were fugitives making for the Canadian border, by asking them to justify their journeys into North Yorkshire, where the pubs are still open. Some told them, with justification, to mind their own business.

People have been asked to limit mixing over Christmas

It raised the question of which rules are set in stone and which are offered merely as “advice”. Last time I looked, travelling between tiers fell into the latter category and thus carried no more clout than warnings not to smoke, or buy sugary drinks. Neither of those is enforceable by law, lest personal freedoms be eroded. How quickly we have sacrificed those principles at the altar of statistics.

The latest guidance, issued this week in North Yorkshire, seems to contradict completely the actual rules, which allow up to three households to mix between next Wednesday and the following Sunday. The county’s health directorate, however, suggested that “just because the rules say you can meet up with people, it does not mean you should”. As Christmas messages go, it lacks the warmth of “peace on earth and goodwill to all men”, doesn’t it?

If one were to seek a grain of positivity from this mess, it is the opportunity to strip Christmas back to its basics. People have complained for years that the holiday is too much trouble; here is their chance to return to the manger, albeit with North Yorkshire Police turning the Three Wise Men back at the Nazareth border. “Is this your myrrh, sir?”

But it’s cold comfort to those outside the bubble, who will spend Christmas more alone than they can remember and then retire to bed on December 31 even before Big Ben has rung out the old year. Good riddance to it.

So as we sit in half-empty houses on Christmas Day and carve 
unnecessarily large turkeys that will keep us in leftovers until Easter, the best we can do is to fill one of the several hundred glasses of whatever we picked up at Morrisons to drown our sorrows, and raise it in a toast to absent friends.

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