What once might have seemed like a radical situation, far removed from our everyday reality, aligned itself with our own experiences of living through a dangerous pandemic.
Like many things about modern Britain, Christmas is riddled with contradictions. Joy and goodwill to all, and a frantic dash for the best shifts and days off. Peace and relaxation, on a tight schedule and bookended by packed trains. Perfect gifts and an elbow in the back — that is, if you're lucky enough to be queuing up today rather than working the tills. No amount of baubles and tinsel can drown out the nagging feeling that these conflicts — large and small — aren't an unfortunate side-effect but a central feature of the way that our society is structured. Capital, it seems, flows quickest when we're at least a bit pissed off with each other. Bah-fucking-humbug.
And like contradictions in general, it's not one side or the other that exposes the reality of the situation, but the system as a whole, in motion. Whether we observe Christmas or not — or would even like to avoid it entirely — it structures the economic rhythm of Britain. Jobs and rotas ebb and flow around it, retailers live or die by it. Just as the long defunct demands of harvest season have left their mark on the school year — and in turn the prices and timings of all manner of things — so the Christian calendar determines office closures and late openings.
The government response to COVID-19 is no exception to that rhythm: the lives of the most vulnerable have been mortgaged — a quite literal death pledge — in service of an ailing economy. The Summer cries that "it'll all be over by Christmas..." carried with them an unconscious ultimatum: it'll all be over by Christmas, "or else".
And just as surely as the need to see rents paid drove a bout of ruling class amnesia over the inevitability of Freshers Flu in Autumn — with intentions as pure as the driven snow — the Winter holidays are "saved". Five days of relaxed rules and bigger bubbles, in exchange for another peak in Spring. Hallelujah. If this were just a matter of secular deference to old tradition and deeply held conviction, we'd have seen the same dispensation given for Rosh Hashanah and Eid al-Adha. Instead, we got Eat Out to Help Out and a second wave.
But as the state flounders in its attempt to save the economy and maintain some appearance of saving lives, even this rhythm begins to falter. Not even the famed Tory enthusiasm for ground rents could sustain the straight-faced insistence that the economic boost of a lunchtime tuna melt was worth the risk of packing office workers onto the tube like sardines. As the capitalists picked off what they could, a PPE shipment here and a call-centre there, the Chancellor played chicken with the end of furlough — a last ditch extension with P45s already posted. And November ended with Arcadia and Debenhams in administration and 25,000 more jobs at risk anyhow.
And after a year spent funneling the elderly from COVID wards into carehomes bereft of support or supplies, the government has met its match. 1 in 20 care home residents has died as a result of the pandemic. 2 in every 3 people the pandemic has killed were disabled. The symbolism of a Christmas without hugs though — as much as the very real pain it would add — was too much. The government has promised twice weekly testing in care homes — surprise! — "by Christmas".
Like any other year in Britain, it's been a year of contradictions. The spectacle of clapping for carers against a backdrop of pay freezes and PPE shortages. The lockdown rules are broken, but please don't break them. Stay the fuck at home, but for fuck's sake don't snitch on those who don't. These aren't convenient gotchas, nuance or realpolitik, but contending forces in motion — with which we in turn must contend.
And now, we must contend with Christmas. The expansion of the bubble. A miserable end to a miserable year or brief moment's respite. It can be both, it can be neither. After a year under varying degrees of lockdown, it might be tempting to say "fuck it". The rules have served to kill off the most vulnerable, criminalise those already cast as criminal, and tried in vain to stabilise capital. What's new? But we have to hold our nerve.
The rules haven't changed because it's safe now. They've changed because they couldn't not change. And in so many ways, that's a bigger kick in the teeth than if they hadn't changed at all. We "can" — however briefly — do more than we could, even if we shouldn't. And others are going to anyway, so why not?
Peaks and troughs don't speak frustration and indignation, and no measure of malice or incompetence on the part of others can change that. And while a vaccine might be on the way, it's impact is still a way off. By now, none of us needs a lecture on the specifics of what to do, and any such lecture would be painfully ignorant of the material detail of so many of our lives. But whatever our conditions, we should understand the risks, seek to minimise (or eliminate) them, and communicate openly with those close to us so that they can do likewise.
After all, all we've got is each other. Stay safe.