France – Tight lockdown makes way for Christmas curfew
Sweden’s national coronavirus recommendations for the Christmas and New Year period came into effect on December 14th.
The key points are as follows:
Only socialise with people you normally meet (the government has said a maximum of eight people should be the ‘norm’, and urged people to ‘stay in their bubble’)
Keep a distance from people you do meet, and meet up outside if possible
Keep a distance from others in public places, outdoors and indoors
Avoid crowded places like shops and public transport if possible
If you travel, make sure you can self-isolate and safely return home without coming into contact with others in the event you develop symptoms
Like most of Sweden’s recommendations for individuals, these are not legally enforced, but are in place alongside some law changes — stricter than those in place in the spring — such as a ban on public events of more than eight people and a ban on alcohol sales after 10pm.
The main burden of responsibility is on the individual, with everyone given room to make the decisions that make most sense for their personal circumstances. People are free to travel between regions, for example, but urged to do so responsibly, avoiding coming into contact with others on the way.
But as the head of healthcare in Stockholm — which has been badly hit by the second wave, almost reaching full ICU capacity — urged locals: “Now we have to ensure that it is not only 'many', but everyone, who follows the recommendations.”
Sweden was hit by a second wave slightly later than many other countries, but it has been hit hard, with test positivity rates around 15 percent in the first week of December, following the deadliest November in Sweden since the year of the Spanish flu.
by Catherine Edwards
Spain – Rules will be relaxed to allow families to gather
How will we be celebrating a Covid-Christmas in Spain?
Usually Christmas Eve in Spain is celebrated with a huge gathering of family and friends, often after travelling half way across the country with a car full of jamon, turron (sweet festive treat) and excited children to return to their village or town and meet up with all the abuelos, tios and primos (grandparents, uncles and aunties, cousins).
December 31st involves another feast at home before piling in to the town square donned in silly wigs and oversized sunglasses to slosh cava and gobble a grape on each dong of midnight to welcome in the New Year and bid good riddance to the last.
But the celebrating doesn’t end there and for children the best is yet to come because on January 5th the Three Kings arrive by lavish parade bearing gifts and bundles of sweets to throw into the expectant crowds that have gathered alongside the procession route. Then it’s off to squeeze into the nearest chocolateria for a slice of roscon (king's cake) dipped into a mug of thick sweet hot chocolate.
This year of course will be different. With Spain still under a “State of Alarm”, the government has issued nationwide rules to clampdown on scenarios that could cause crowds to gather and a rule that seals regional borders between December 23 and January 6 to discourage travel between the autonomous communities.
But the holiday period will also see a loosening of rules. Loathe to keep families apart, the Health Ministry will allow gatherings of up to ten people from the current six and a delay to curfew until 1.30 am on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Under national rules travel is also justified for the purposes of meeting family and even close friends – we explain the controversy over the term allegados here – although some regional authorities are imposing tighter restrictions to avoid this.
Meanwhile, after some apparent success of flattening the curve of the second wave with a series of tight restrictions that differed from region to region, the infection rate is once again on the rise, with 20 percent more people diagnosed this Monday than last, an escalation blamed on complacency that led to socialising over the four day bank holiday weekend in early December.
“The messages are mixed and causing a huge problem in my family,” one Spanish friend confided in me this week. “My brother thinks it’s time to bring our family together and celebrate because we have been apart all year, yet I am terrified that doing such a thing could risk the health of my 86-year-old father.
“We are so close to him getting the vaccine that we shouldn’t risk everything now.”
by Fiona Govan
Denmark – Partial lockdown imposed as well as limitations on family gatherings
A partial lockdown, initially introduced regionally, was extended to all of Denmark on December 15th.
In addition to closures of restaurants, bars and cafes along with education, cultural and sporting facilities, the lockdown will impact the way Christmas is celebrated given it will run alongside the continuation of existing restrictions.
In addition to the partial lockdown, the current national recommendation to limit private gatherings to 10 people will remain in place over Christmas and New Year.
That means authorities are strongly encouraging people across the country not to spend Christmas with more than 10 people, as well as to maintain a social distance from those they do not live with during Christmas family gatherings.
Authorities have requested (rather than ordered) people living in municipalities affected by the lockdown not to travel to neighbouring municipalities to do things which are currently closed to them locally. That includes going to bars, restaurants, cinemas or any other places which are closed or restricted in the municipality in which you live. As such, the partial lockdown could impact planned Christmas social activities.
The partial lockdown was introduced last week. There is no restriction on travel between regions of the country, but some speculation has taken place as to whether this could also be introduced before Christmas if the infection rate, which spiked upwards last week, does not improve.
by Mike Barrett
Norway – Tighter rules in Oslo and limits on family gatherings
Norway has tight national rules in place limiting gatherings in private homes, but these will be relaxed slightly for Christmas, the government announced at the beginning of December.
Current coronavirus restrictions in the Nordic country limit households to no more than five outside guests at private gatherings. That will be extended to ten people over two days at Christmas. Families are to be given free choice over the two days on which they decide to use the provision for up to ten guests.
In announcing the easing of restrictions for Christmas, the government emphasised the importance of social distancing. Although households are currently allowed to invite a maximum of five guests into their home, people must stay one metre apart from each other. That will remain the case on the days when up to ten guests attend. The Christmas guidelines are effective from December 23rd until January 1st.
These rules will not apply in capital city Oslo, where stricter local restrictions have been in place for some time due to a heightened infection rate compared to the rest of the country.
Oslo's ban on private gatherings of more than 10 persons is to remain in place throughout Christmas. This is a stricter rule than the one in effect in the rest of Norway, which allows larger gatherings on two occasions during the Christmas period.
Authorities advise against non-essential travel within Norway, but travelling home for Christmas can be considered necessary, according to the public health agency NIPH, which has also released health guidance for families meeting for Christmas. People travelling from high to low infection areas are asked to practice caution for the first 10 days after travelling domestically.
by Mike Barrett
Austria – Lockdown has been replaced by a strict curfew and limits on gatherings
Austrian authorities announced a relaxation of the country’s tight lockdown from Monday, December 7th.
Tight restrictions still apply on leaving the house at night, the types of businesses that may open – including Christmas markets – and entry into Austria during the festive period.
Austria’s all-day lockdown was wound back and restrictions on leaving homes will now only apply from 8pm to 6am.
While you may now leave the house during the day regardless of the reason, leaving the house at night can only be for four reasons: work, exercise, to care for others or for the ‘necessary and basic needs of life’, i.e. to avoid emergencies, etc.
During the day, you may meet with a maximum of six adults and six children from a max of two households.
These rules will however be wound back from the period of December 24th to 26th – and on December 31st.
On those days, you may meet with up to ten people from any number of households. Children do not count towards the tally.
Shops are allowed to open again – albeit subject to major restrictions, with only one customer will be allowed per ten square metres.
Christmas markets and the takeaway sale of alcohol has been banned.
One final aspect to consider is the Christmas quarantine requirement, which will apply from December 19th until January 10th.
Anyone arriving or returning from a high-risk area will be required to quarantine for ten days when entering Austria under the rules.
After five days in quarantine, people will be entitled to have a free coronavirus test in order to leave quarantine early.
While there are some exceptions for cross-border commuters, people entering for family gatherings or to go skiing will not be exempt from the quarantine requirement.
‘High risk’ countries will be any country which has a 14-day incidence rate of more than 100 positive cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents.
Currently, all of Austria's neighbours are high-risk.
by Dan Wighton
Switzerland – Tight rules on gatherings… but skiing is permitted
Like pretty much everywhere else in Europe, Christmas won’t be ‘normal’ this year in Switzerland.
Yes, shops, restaurants and cafés are open. Streets are decorated, Christmas trees sparkle with hundreds of lights, and the aroma of roasted chestnuts sold in little wooden booths permeates the air.
Yet somehow it doesn’t feel like ‘real’ Christmas, but like a watered-down and subdued version of it. That’s because everything is scaled down, regulated, and minimal.
After 10 months of living under various restrictions, people are resigned to the idea of giving up many daily pleasures — including traditional Christmas celebrations — for the sake of health.
Only a few weeks ago, when the infection rate started to flatten, it looked like maybe Christmas could be saved after all. But then the numbers stopped declining and now, as our health minister put it, “they are stagnating at a high level” — between 4,000 and 5,000 cases a day.
While in the Swiss-French cantons the contamination rate is slowing down somewhat, in the German-speaking regions, as well as in Ticino, it is increasing.
The number of Covid patients in hospitals remains high and health officials are warning about a new surge after the Christmas season, which could put the health system under strain more than during the first coronavirus wave in the spring.
The government has tried to strike a balance between too many restrictions and too much freedom — admittedly not an easy compromise to reach in a pandemic.
The measures it introduced from December 13th to January 22nd include fewer people allowed in shops and smaller private gatherings.
But these rules also allow greater leeway at Christmas and on New Year’s Eve: while only groups of up to five people from two households are permitted to meet right now, up to 10 people can get together from December 24th to 26th, and on December 31st.
One concession that Swiss authorities made is to allow skiing, even though Switzerland’s neighbours France, Italy and Germany have not.
It is just as well, because dashing down the snowy Alpine slopes may be one of very few pleasures that conjures up happy memories of Christmases past.
by Helena Bachmann
Germany – Rules tightened on family gatherings but has it come too late?
Christmas in Germany is always a special time, especially with the markets. But this year we are in the middle of the second coronavirus wave so there’s been a lot less fun (and no markets).
It appears, though, that we haven’t done enough. On Sunday Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 16 state leaders ordered tougher lockdown nationwide measures from Wednesday December 16th until at least January 10th.
As daily infections hover around 20,000 (even increasing to a record high of nearly 30,000 on December 11th) and the number of deaths shoot up, it’s clear the partial shutdown put in place in November hasn’t worked.
Now schools have to move to online teaching or close until the middle of next month, probably longer. Non-essential shops and hairdressers also have to shut.
And there will be no more Glühwein as drinking alcohol in public is now banned. It’s a blow to the businesses trying to make a bit of money in these dismal times by setting up takeaway mulled wine stands.
It’s also disappointing for punters: in Berlin groups have been gathering on street corners, clutching paper cups. People just want to enjoy themselves, and it’s no wonder after this year.
However, these gatherings are likely one of the many reasons why Covid-19 infections refuse to go down.
So can we socialise at Christmas? Yes, but the rules have changed. Germany was to allow a max of 10 people from any number of households to meet from December 23rd to New Year’s Eve.
Under the new rules a household can meet with four close family members to celebrate from December 24th to 26th (not including under 14s).
There are some state differences – in Berlin you can meet friends instead of family.
There’s a nationwide ban on gatherings at New Year and people are not allowed to buy fireworks.
Although Germans are known for sticking to rules, there is pandemic fatigue. It’s not helped by the mixed messages, changing rules, and squabbling between the government and state leaders.
It’s also important to note that this isn’t a strict lockdown compared to other European countries, and even Germany’s spring lockdown: people have not been ordered to stay at home (there’s just an appeal) and we can visit others in their homes.
There’s also no strict ban on travel, authorities have just said urged people not to.
The question is should there have been a tougher lockdown earlier? Now is not the time to point fingers, we just have to get through winter.
But I’ve no doubt Germany will be taking stock and lessons will have to be learned, particularly from the handling of the second wave.
by Rachel Loxton
Italy – Christmas rules are complex and confusing
In a country that puts such importance on huge family gatherings and religious traditions, enforcing coronavirus restrictions over Christmas was never going to be simple.
Announcing the Christmas rules at the start of December, the Italian government focused on bringing in a range of tough travel restrictions, while steering clear of attempting to set hard rules on how many people you can have over for dinner.
The government is however recommending a maximum of six adults around the table.
Italy’s new rules restrict travel to and within the country until at least mid-January.
Anyone travelling abroad will need to follow strict new testing or quarantine requirements, which vary depending on the date of travel. Non-essential travel between regions is also banned from December 21st-January 6th.
Restaurants can open at Christmas – until 6pm, but not in all regions. ‘Midnight’ mass can go ahead – but needs to be rescheduled for early evening due to the 10pm curfew.
The rules on what you can and cannot do depend not only on which zone your region is in under the tier system, but also on national restrictions, scheduled in the decree to change several times throughout December and January. And on any local city ordinances you may be under.
But overall, the rules in Italy get stricter towards Christmas.
The Christmas decree is complex and confusing. It has been updated, or clarified, several times already, but this hasn't helped. The lack of certainty has caused anger and confusion. And there are more changes to come: the prime minister announced this week that restrictions will soon be tightened back up again.
The string of updates has already played havoc with many peoples’ travel plans, with changing rules causing a headache for those who had already booked tickets.
Those of us living abroad have had to make a tough call this year. Some have decided to go ahead with a trip home to see family despite the various obstacles. But many more are unable to do so, and have had to rethink plans altogether.
Most readers we spoke to said they’ll be spending a quiet Christmas in Italy this year, rather than travelling to visit relatives. Of course, there are worse places to spend a holiday – but that’s cold comfort when your family are thousands of miles away. People are stocking up on prosecco and panettone and trying to make the best of it.
And the majority of people in Italy are still carefully following the rules – however confusing they may get. We’re all too aware of the importance as the daily death toll remains around 500 and the infection rate, while slowing, is still well above the numbers seen during the first wave.
by Clare Speak
Elsewhere around Europe
The UK has ended its national lockdown but huge parts of the country including London are under strict “tier 3” restrictions, which means bars and restaurants are closed. As for Christmas the government has allowed three families to gather together over the festive period but is coming under increasing pressure to scrap that rule given the rising number of cases.
In Ireland from Friday 18 December, the government is allowing three households to mix for social and family gatherings in homes, gardens and other outdoor settings. Pubs and restaurants are open but only to serve and shops are also open.
The Netherlands has just imposed a five-week strict lockdown with schools and non-essential shops closing until January 19th. The Dutch government has set a maximum number of visitors in the home at two per day but a small exception will be made for Christmas, allowing three guests in total on December 24th, 25th, and 26th.
Belgium is only allowing Christmas gatherings outside, which means anyone without a garden cannot invite anyone over. And for those with a garden, guests are not allowed into the house at all and only one of them is allowed to use the toilet. If another guest needs to relieve themselves then they need to return home.