How to cut Christmas Day coronavirus risk – from presents to games and dinner

In a Daily Mirror article published on Christmas Eve, Matt Roper and I discuss ways to stay safe this Christmas when the UK is in the midst of a pandemic, with Covid-19 cases rising across the country. The key action is to minimise mixing indoors with people from other households. Think carefully before you socialise, particularly if this will be with people at higher risk of death and complications from Covid-19, such as the elderly and those with long term health problems.

How often should we wash or sanitise our hands?

You should aim to get into a routine for handwashing. I would recommend handwashing around every two hours during the daytime. You should also wash your hands before and after any activity that might increase the risk of infection, such as handling food or when you have been in contact with other people. Using soap and water is fine, and there is no need to use expensive hand sanitiser unless soap and water are not readily available.

Should we keep the windows open? What if it gets too cold?

The risk of infection is substantially higher in poorly ventilated, indoor spaces. Good ventilation helps ensure that any virus that is in the air is dispersed more quickly, thereby reducing the risk of infection, if you are indoors with people who are not from your household. If you are not able to keep the room at a reasonable temperature whilst also maintaining good ventilation, you should consider whether it is safe for you to meet indoors with people from other households.

How long should relatives stay for? (i.e., just a few hours, overnight, a few days? Does it really matter how long?)

Whether people can stay with you depends on the local rules for your area. In England, mixing with people from other households is not allowed indoors if your live in a Tier 3 or Tier 4 area, except on Christmas Day (but not in Tier 4 areas). Most person-to-person transmission of Covid-19 takes places within households. Hence, where visits are allowed, these should be kept to a minimum period and overnight stays should be avoided. The longer you spend indoors with other people and the more people you mix with, the greater is the risk of transmission of infection.

What about Christmas presents/cards? Should they be wiped down first?

The risk of infection from handling presents and cards will not be great, but it is still a good idea to wipe them down first and leave them for a few hours before opening them. Remember to wash your hands after handling objects that have been touched by other people.

How close can we get? (i.e., should we hug, sit on the same sofa, be together in the kitchen etc…)

Direct physical contact with other people through, for example, hugging or shaking hands, increases the likelihood that the Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) will transfer between people and will therefore increase the risk of infection. Wherever possible, social distancing should be maintained (two metres ideally, one metre as an absolute minimum). In practice, this will be difficult for many people indoors, which is why indoor mixing with people from other households increases the risk of infection. Do not meet people from other households if you have any symptoms of a possible Covid-19 infection or if you are within 10 days of contact with somebody who has had an infection.

Is it better for younger family members to visit older ones, or for older ones to come to see younger ones?

It doesn’t really matter which way around the visit is; any mixing of people from different households will increase the risk of infection. Choose the location where you can maintain the best infection control measures; for example, a house with larger rooms and good ventilation rather than a small flat. Remember to follow the local rules on household mixing for your area; and practise good infection control, such as social distancing and regular hand-washing. Meeting outdoors is always safter than meeting indoors as any virus that is in the air will disperse much more quickly.

Are there any Christmas tradition we shouldn’t do? (i.e., Mistletoe, charades, board games, carol singing…?)

It’s best to avoid handling objects that have been touched by other people. Activities such as singing indoors have also been shown to increase the risk of infection as they are what are known as “aerosol generating”. Although Christmas is a special time and an important part of our social fabric, special precautions are needed this year and for the first few months of 2021. We need to maintain these measures until such time as the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme starts to protect us and bring infection rates down.

How should the seating for people from different households be arranged for Christmas dinner?

People from different households should ideally maintain adequate social distancing wherever possible. Good ventilation helps to disperse any virus in the air more quickly.

Which is the safest way to serve the food? (i.e., Plated up in the kitchen rather than served from the table etc?).

It’s better to plate food in the kitchen rather than from the table or using shared platters. If food is served from a table, it is more likely to become contaminated.

Is there any kind of food we shouldn’t have? (Shared bowls of nuts, buffet style food, too much alcohol etc?)

Shared dining has been shown to increase the risk of infection. Hence, shared food such as bowls of nuts or buffet style food is best-avoided as handling food by many people will increase the risk of infection (not just for Coronavirus but also for gastroenteritis). Avoid drinking too much and remain aware of your surroundings and of other people around you.

What extra hygiene measures should be taken?

The best measure you can take is to meet outdoors where the risk of infection is much lower than indoors. If meeting indoors, ensure that surfaces are cleaned, ventilation is good, and anyone who is unwell or has had recent contact with someone with a Covid-19 infection stays at home and does not mix with other people. Take particular care with hygiene in higher risk areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. If you are in a high-risk group for a more severe Covid-19 illness or death, you need to take additional precautions and consider whether it is safe for you to meet people from other households indoors. You will eventually be offered a Covid-19 vaccine and once vaccine coverage in the population is high, we will see a decline in infection rates, making it safer for everyone to start to resume normal social activities.