Scientists advising the Government have set out a number of general tips for people to consider around mixing households for any kind of family, religious or cultural celebration.
Here is what the advice, from the Environmental and Modelling Group (EMG) and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) dated November 26, says:
– Have an online gathering, postpone to a later date or opt for the great outdoors
From the outset, the experts recommend considering whether a physical gathering is really “essential”, or whether it could be held at another time in the future, or online instead.
Another alternative is having an event outdoors.
The scientists accept that social events and celebrations in winter “pose a particular challenge”, but they reiterate that the virus is much less likely to transmit between people if you are outside.
They suggest meeting for a walk, or for a “distanced drink” outside someone’s house or in a public place.
– Travel safely
Scientists said there is “a small amount of evidence relating to public transport, and growing concern that car-sharing poses a high risk due to the confined space”.
They said this could carry increased risk where people are picking up vulnerable relatives or because there is a designated driver among groups.
Their advice is to wear face coverings, open windows, keep journeys as short as possible and avoid unnecessary travel with people outside of your own household.
– Limit the time spent together
After a long, tough year it might be expected that people will want to gather together for as long as they can within the period set out by the Government this festive season.
But scientists recommend limiting the length of interactions, especially if people are mixing indoors. They said those “should be restricted as much as possible and reserved for short duration quality time”.
When it comes to children meeting vulnerable relatives, including grandparents, they say this should be outside where possible, highlighting that walking or playing outside “are safest”.
Experts recommend avoiding overnight visits and limiting people from different households sharing rooms to reduce cross transmission risks.
They say children should share a room with their parents rather than children from different households if staying over.
– Limit the number of people who meet, and choose the largest space possible
Scientists said cutting the number of people who meet can help reduce the risk and recommend gathering “in the largest space that is feasible”.
They advise on “simple actions” like rearranging furniture and taking turns to cook and wash up in order to avoid crowding and help people keep a safe distance from one another.
They add: “Consider face coverings where distance cannot be maintained.”
Experts suggest avoiding face-to-face positioning to reduce droplet transmission.
Seating members of the same household opposite each other, and spacing members of other households further away, are recommended, perhaps even using place names as a “physical prompt”.
– Open windows
Poorly ventilated spaces pose a higher risk, the scientists said, as they acknowledged the greater likelihood of this happening in cold winter weather when people keep windows closed.
They recommend “short-term airing” – by opening windows for between 10 and 15 minutes every hour.
They said extractor fans, especially in kitchens and bathrooms that visitors use, can also help, and again recommend wearing face coverings when people are not eating or drinking “to reduce risk further”.
Where overnight stays are involved experts said keeping the bedroom door closed and opening windows slightly can limit the airflows between bedrooms and the rest of the house.
– Ditch the board games in favour of a quiz
Games involving lots of shared objects, such as board games, are not recommended. Scientists say these could be substituted for quiz-based games.
If shared objects are involved, make sure there is good hand hygiene and do your best to avoid touching your face during the activities, the experts say.
They say mitigations are most effective when they target objects that are likely to be touched, noting that it is “very unlikely” items like decorations will pose a risk because they are rarely handled.
– Don’t make a song and dance
Festive singalongs indoors are not recommended, with experts saying several studies have shown that singing is associated with a high transmission risk especially if ventilation is poor.
And dancing along to your favourite Christmas tunes is not advised either, with scientists saying aerobic activities like high-energy dance fitness have been linked to outbreaks, explaining that this is probably down to higher breathing rates.
They recommend avoiding singing or dancing in indoor spaces, but say that, where this does happen, “limiting the loudness of singing and the duration of activities” and ensuring good ventilation and space between people “are likely to reduce risks”.
Once again, face coverings are encouraged to further reduce the risk of virus spread.
– Hygiene is key
Make sure tissues, wipes, and sanitiser aplenty are all available at any gathering and remember to provide bins to dispose of these.
To remind young children especially, consider using signs and stickers, scientists say.
They state that people should wash or sanitise hands before a meal and ensure those cooking or serving food also practise good hygiene.
– Elbow bumps rather than hugs
Scientists advise that people should avoid physical contact “as far as possible”, especially anything involving face-face or face-hand contact.
They suggest “gestures such as elbow bumps or air greetings could be used as alternatives”.
They add: “If there is physical contact it is a good idea to keep it to the minimum duration, turn faces away and wash hands afterwards.”
Earlier this week, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said people should not hug or kiss elderly relatives “if you want them to survive to be hugged again”.
– Plan your gathering
The scientists suggest a “household plan” could be drawn up to “include agreements around managing activities and the physical environment”.
They said it is beneficial to “explicitly consider vulnerable people and how they may be able to participate safely” and note particularly events involving children where they might be mixing with people who are vulnerable to serious consequences from infection.
They said the plan is most likely to be successful “if it is clear and accessible for all those involved”, suggesting a physical or digital document or checklist to ensure everyone involved “is aware of the ‘rules’ they have agreed collaboratively”.
They said it is “especially important to involve women in decision-making about creating safer household environments”, noting that females have experienced increased unpaid care responsibilities amid the pandemic “due to the heightened need to care for elderly family members and childcare due to school and nursery closures”.
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