COVID-19: how to have a safe Christmas

Christmas is just around the corner, but this year it will be a little different to what we're used to. This festive season it's really important to make sure we're being 'COVID-safe' and mitigating the risks of the virus as much as possible.

The rules on how we are permitted to meet over the Christmas 2020 holiday period have changed since last weekend (20th December) and may continue to be amended. It is essential that everyone check and follow the governmental guidelines relating to the tier they currently live in in the UK. Please also note that some of the quoted comments included in this article, may also now be out of date and superseded by new rules. This is unavoidable because crisis talks are underway and tier rules may be subject to further changes.

We all know about the importance of socially distancing, wearing masks and washing your hands as often as possible, but what other steps can you take to have a COVID-safe Christmas? Martin Michaelis, a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent, and Jade Pallett, microbiologist at sanitiser brand Zoono, tell us more.

Squeaky clean

As well as following the government's 'Hands, Space, Face' guidance, both Michaelis and Pallett say it’s important to regularly clean surfaces to stop the spread of the virus.

"Keep on top of cleaning high touch point areas within your household, such as door handles (internal and external), toilet flushes, taps and light switches," Pallett explains. "This will help protect both members of your household and your 'Christmas bubble' guests during the festive period."

Let some air in

Michaelis adds that proper ventilation can also help prevent the virus from spreading.

"You can follow distancing rules, abstain from physical contact, wear face masks as much as possible, wash your hands, clean surfaces, and make sure that rooms are regularly ventilated by opening windows or doors," he says.

"You do not want to have stuffy rooms, because virus-loaded aerosols accumulate over time and increase the transmission risk. Since COVID-19 can also be transmitted via touching contaminated surfaces, you also want to avoid many people touching the same things and regularly clean surfaces.

"You do not want to have bowls with crisps or other food that different people touch with their hands. If you have common meals, everything should remain separated as much as possible."

Short and sweet

The extremely small (under 100 micrometre) aerosol droplets emitted by someone infected when they breathe or talk are much lighter than the droplets of about 300 micrometres produced when they cough or sneeze.

These aerosol droplets are now known to hang around in the air for hours, becoming more concentrated in the vicinity of the infected person. So reducing the time people spend together, as well as concentrating on ventilation, are key.

Because these droplets are so tiny and light, they are easily dispersed by the slightest air current. If permitted to do so, holding your gathering outside (a tent is fine as long as it's not completely enclosed - keep one or two sides open for through-draft) is ideal to reduce the risk. This hugely reduces the concentration of aerosol droplets, which makes infection much less likely. Failing this, keep windows and doors open to increase ventilation and disperse the droplets. Make sure that you have checked the rules for the tier you live in.

Baby, it's cold outside

The government’s Scientific Advisory Ground for Emergencies (SAGE) is recommending a virtual Christmas or outside gatherings as much as possible. It is also recommending that you greet loved ones without touching them - which unfortunately means no hugging or kissing.

"Spreading chairs out around the dining table and perhaps having more than one dining table will help reduce the spread of COVID-19," Pallett adds. "It is also recommended for one person (with clean hands) to serve dinner in one area, rather than laying the food out in the centre of the dining table to avoid close contact and multiple hands touching serving implements and bowls."

Going home for Christmas

If you're seeing elderly or vulnerable friends or family this Christmas you need to be extra careful to reduce your risk of transmitting the virus.

Michaelis recommends self-isolating before spending time with anyone at greater risk of the virus. "If possible, self-isolation is a good idea, ideally for at least ten days," he says. "You have to consider carefully how COVID-19 is transmitted and analyse the risks in your individual setting. Since COVID-19 is spread via the air and contaminated surfaces you will need to follow a very strict distancing, ventilation, and hygiene protocol.

"Whatever you decide to do, it is important to remain aware that although you can reduce the transmission risk by being thorough and considerate, you cannot completely avoid any risk. There is no absolute security."

If you are self-isolating because you have symptoms, or have been told by NHS Test and Trace to do so, you should not leave your house and cannot mix within your Christmas bubble.

Put to the test

One of the most reliable ways to ensure you're not giving COVID-19 to your loved ones this Christmas is to get tested, although even then it's not a 100% guarantee.

If you have coronavirus symptoms such as a high temperature, continuous cough or loss of (or change to) your sense of taste and smell, then you can book a free test through the NHS. It's essential to self-isolate until the result of the test is available.

If you don't have symptoms but want to ensure you're tested before visiting loved ones or forming your Christmas bubble then you can book a test privately. You can now book private PCR and rapid access tests within Patient Access.

"You need to be careful to choose the right test. For example, a PCR or rapid-access swab test tells you whether you are currently infected, whereas an antibody test indicates whether you have in the past been in contact with COVID-19," Michaelis explains.

"It is also worth considering that a test does not provide complete security. If you have just been infected, the virus load may not be high enough to be detected but you may become contagious soon.

"Even if you are negative at the time, you can become infectious after the test. Hence, you always need to be very considerate. A negative test result does not mean that you can abandon all caution."

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