Home Brussels Europe’s coronavirus Christmas — what you can (and can’t) do

Europe’s coronavirus Christmas — what you can (and can’t) do

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Governments in Europe have a Christmas dilemma — play carefree Santa or responsible Grinch.

If ministers allow friends and family to gather and celebrate the holidays together, they risk upending efforts to keep the second wave of the pandemic in check, and raise the prospect of a harsher lockdown and more economic hardship in the new year. 

“We can basically trade off a short window of people being able to get together for a potentially quite long window where people are going to be constrained,” said Oliver Wright, managing director of global consumer goods and services at consultancy Accenture.

But if they choose caution over carols and Christmas cheer by keeping strict rules in place they will also forego a much-needed economic boost. For a large number of businesses, the run-up to Christmas is “amongst the biggest single determinant of whether they survive the whole year,” said Wright.

The return to semi-normal life during the summer holidays led to a second wave of cases across the Continent, forcing governments to adopt new lockdown measures in the fall and acknowledge the relaxation of rules had gone too far. Facing a similar dilemma, a handful of European governments have already made their choice and look set to go down a similar path of easing restrictions — mindful that fun-starved citizens may just ignore restrictions anyway.

Here’s a POLITICO tour around what Christmas will look in some countries in Europe (you can read about Continent-wide travel restrictions here):


Germany will extend its “lockdown lite” originally scheduled to end on November 30 until December 23, and tighten some measures to push infection numbers down further ahead of the festive break. The idea is to put stricter limits on private gatherings during advent to enable people to meet more freely between December 23 and New Year’s Day.

To that end, private meetings will be limited to five individuals from no more than two households, down from 10 individuals from two households in November. But over Christmas, up to 10 individuals will be able to meet, irrespective of whether they live in two or 10 different households.

The less stringent rules are set to last until January 1, but it remains likely that restrictions will continue into 2021, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday after a videoconference with the leaders of Germany’s 16 states where the December measures were agreed. Another meeting to assess the restrictions will be held before Christmas. 

Official government guidance here.


Paris will ease lockdown restrictions in three steps. Starting Saturday, November 28, small businesses will reopen, and the perimeter of daily outings will be widened from 1 kilometer to 20 kilometers. Places of worship will be allowed to hold services with up to 30 people.

In a second phase, starting from mid-December and provided that infection rates and hospital intensive care unit occupancy stay below certain thresholds, the requirement to stay at home except for work, school and necessary trips will end. It will be replaced by a nightly curfew from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. — with the exceptions of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

People will be allowed to travel to reunite with family, and museums, cinemas and theaters will be allowed to reopen. From January 20, barring a new surge in cases, bars, restaurants and gyms will reopen. “I appeal to your sense of responsibility: This will certainly not be a Christmas holiday like any other,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday, urging the French to continue being vigilant and implementing social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands.


Belgium, which is reeling from the highest spike in cases in Europe’s second wave, isn’t keen on a third one. “The last thing we want is a Christmas wave. If we’re carefree during Christmas, we will suffer the consequences three or four weeks down the line,” said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who will be celebrating with his immediate family.

The country is yet to come up with concrete measures (the current rules expire on December 13) but it is unlikely that large gatherings will be allowed. Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said last week: “It is my absolute wish, and that of my colleagues, to allow a little more human closeness for Christmas. At the same time, we must take the alarm signals from hospitals very seriously. We have to find a balance.”


Warsaw decided to reopen malls and shops to allow the economy to benefit from a much-needed consumption boost. “These decisions can save hundreds of thousands of jobs, which is why we are taking them,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. However, Poles will be allowed to spend Christmas only with the immediate family, and travel will be banned. “Reducing contacts is fundamental for the further development of the pandemic. We are working on legal options to limit movement,” he said.


The government will adopt new measures detailing what Italians can and can’t do over the Christmas period. “We must already prepare ourselves to spend the holidays in a more sober way,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week. Italy is divvied up into red, orange and yellow zones, according to the level of circulation of the virus and the severity of the measures in place. Travel between regions is banned.

This may change closer to Christmas to allow families to reunite, according to local reports. The government will likely limit Christmas and New Year’s celebrations to immediate family (five to six people maximum, according to Health Under-Secretary Sandra Zampa) and prohibit all large gatherings. Retailers will likely reopen to allow for Christmas shopping.

The nighttime curfew — currently starting at 10 p.m. — could be extended. As for skiing — a favorite Italian way to spend the holidays — Conte invoked the need to coordinate at EU level to avoid a third spike in cases.

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Caution prevails in Madrid. “We are working on a specific planning for a Christmas that will be different, but safe. This year we will have to stay at a distance from our loved ones instead of hugging them,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez warned on Sunday. A draft of the government’s Christmas plan obtained by El Mundo limits Christmas and New Year celebrations to the immediate household, or up to a maximum of six people if inviting others.

Travel between regions will be allowed and open-air markets can go ahead. The nighttime curfew, currently starting at 11 p.m., could be extended to 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The traditional Christmas mass will be permitted, but without singing. These measures are still to be agreed between the government and the regions.


In Austria, which is under a strict lockdown until December 6, the government intends to conduct mass testing in the coming weeks to break chains of infection — and to allow for more normal festive conviviality. “With the mass tests, we are opening a new chapter in the fight against the pandemic and want to make it possible for people to enjoy Christmas in a close family circle,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said earlier this month.

“This project requires a big logistical effort, but it brings enormous advantages. We can quickly locate a high number of infected people and thus break the infection chains even more vigorously,” he added.

According to the government’s plan, teachers and kindergarten employees will be tested first, over the first weekend in December. Next will be the police, followed by communities that have suffered under the highest infection rates in the country. The effort will be supported by the Austrian military.

United Kingdom

Britons will enjoy a five-day “grace period” between December 23 and December 27, under a deal reached between the Westminster government and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. During this time, three different households will be allowed to mix in private homes, places of worship and outdoors, but not in hospitality or entertainment venues. Travel will be allowed. Further guidance on carol singing is expected.

Current lockdown restrictions will expire on December 2, but what will follow won’t be a “free for all,” warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In England, the government will resume its three-tier system, with regions placed into different levels of restrictions but with measures in each tier heightened compared with those in place prior to the current lockdown. Regardless of the tier, however, starting from December 3 the requirement to stay at home will end, and domestic and international travel will be able to resume. Shops, gyms, and face-to-face services like barbers and entertainment venues will reopen, while religious gatherings, weddings and sports will resume.

Official guidance here.

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