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'Can I cancel my turkey?' - Our panel of experts answer your questions about the Christmas Covid rules and restrictions

Amid the chaos and confusion surrounding the Tier 4 restrictions for parts of England, our panel of experts answer your questions.

From questions about health, food and, travel, here's all you need to know.

Q: Can I still see my family by sitting outside in the garden?

A: Dr Sarah Jarvis, a GP, says: The answer in Tier 4 in England is no not, even in a garden and not even at Christmas. 

In England, Wales and in Scotland, it is Christmas Day only indoors and outdoors, but of course outdoors in the garden is much safer if you can do it. That does not include social bubbles, that means somebody who lives alone, who has a child under 18 and is a single parent who has a child under one or a child under five needing care even if they’re not a single parent. 

If we then move to Scotland, then, of course, the rules have changed so you’ve now got one day with three families but not more than eight people and that does not include children under 12. However, of course in Scotland, the recommendation is that you should be staying local and there will be no cross border travel.

In Wales, there is a lockdown which has largely come in already and of course, after Christmas, that’s going to come in, in even greater detail. However, they have still said that up to two families can meet indoors or outdoors anywhere in Wales. In Northern Ireland, the recommendation is that they are allowing one day - and this is a brand new change - they’re just allowing one day sometime between the 23rd and 27th December where three families can meet.

Q: I’m separated and I should be having my children during the Christmas holidays - can this still happen when we are living in different tiers?

A: Dr Sarah Jarvis, a GP, says: If you live with two sets of parents as a child then you can move freely between two households and that includes staying overnight if you need to or go indoors if you need to in order for that changeover of childcare to happen. However, if possible, you keep it to a minimum and that family does not count as part of your childcare or your social care bubble.

Q: My relative is in a care home. Can we still visit them if we stand outside the window?

A: Dr Rachel Clarke, a Palliative Care Doctor says: The good news is, whatever tier you are in - 1 to 4 - it is possible to make some kind of visit to a care home. For tiers 1 to 3, that visit can be a so-called close contact visit so you are allowed in principle to go into the care home and actually see your relative and be close to them face to face. If you live in Tier 4, that unfortunately isn’t possible and you need to have a more socially distanced visit so it will involve screens, pods or windows and that is desperately sad for so many people but necessary to protect very vulnerable older adults. 

The key thing for every family is to talk to the particular care home in question and find out exactly what they’re able to facilitate and I know that care homes up and down the country are doing everything in their power to enable as many people as possible to be as close as they can to their loved ones in a care home as safely as possible.

Whatever tier you live in, the rules allow you to make care home visits and that applies on Christmas Day but on any other day of the year as well. The key thing is finding out how socially distanced those visits need to be.

Q: I am on my own, so how many people can I include in my support bubble?

A: Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health, Edinburgh University, says: You can have and maintain the same support bubbles you had before but especially with this new variant emerging, try to reduce for at least the next two weeks any contact in terms of overnight stays or going into other peoples homes just until we know more about it and how it will play out in the coming weeks. 

Q: My friend is terminally ill and I want to be able to help with shopping and appointments. We are in different tiers so does this mean I can’t help?

A: Dr Rachel Clarke says: The rules and the laws allow certain exceptions to the restrictions imposed whatever tier you’re in so even if you’re in Tier 4. One of those is to provide health or assistance to a vulnerable person and of course, a terminally ill person meets the definition of vulnerable. So if you need to cross tiers to provide essential assistance to somebody who is very vulnerable, you are allowed to do so. 

Q: We have a holiday abroad planned in the next couple of days. Can we still go?

A: Professor Devi Sridhar says: Whether we like it or not, a lot of countries are now banning travel to the UK so I would say this is a fast-moving situation. I would err on the side of caution. I know it’s painful but delay the holiday because while you may show up to the airport, your flight may not take off. 

Q: Will the Tier 4 restrictions last until a vaccine is widely rolled out? Is there any way we can speed up vaccinations?

A: Dr Sarah Jarvis says: It’s being done in hubs but it’s also being done in GPs. The good news is that it is likely to be rolled out across care homes in England at least from next week. We have a problem with the current vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine which is that it is quite difficult logistically because it needs to be stored at ultra-low temperatures. 

We’re also coming up to our busiest time of year in hospitals and in primary care and unfortunately, GP practices, mostly our wonderful nurses and hospital staff are having to roll that out at the time they’re doing all the other things so I think it’s going to be a challenge to roll it out any quicker even if we do get enough supplies. 

Q: I’m in Tier 4, if I paid for a private Covid test for me, and my brother and sister-in-law, could we then spend Christmas together?

A: Dr Amir Khan, a GP, says: Unfortunately, the instructions for Tier 4 are really clear. You must not mix households even on Christmas Day. With regards to private tests, we just don’t know how accurate they are. Lots of tests were offered to the government and the NHS and they failed stringent guidelines so are not officially being used, but are still available for use privately. This may mean they don’t give accurate results. My advice would be, stay at home. I know it’s hard. Find other ways to contact your family. Digital platforms are really helpful. It’s really really hard. I know that. I acknowledge that but that is the safest thing to do.

Q: My family can’t come round now as I’m in Tier 4. Can I cancel my turkey or get a refund on my shopping?

A: Consumer expert Harry Wallop says: The basic rule of thumb is that you cannot return perishable goods, any fresh or frozen items to the supermarket.

Now, if you’ve bought or placed your order online and the online delivery hasn’t arrived yet, nearly all supermarkets give you the right to cancel that online order up until really quite late the night before - usually about 11pm. That’s if you’re buying online. If you’ve bought it in the store and you’ve already got your turkey sitting in the fridge, then I’m afraid to say, that’s not possible. But actually, a lot of the supermarkets do say for non-perishable items - something like a Christmas pudding or some stuffing - give them a call. They will try and be reasonable and they will try and take some stuff back. One of your options is your local food bank or any of these food sharing apps. 

Q: There will be so much food waste. What can I do?

A: Celebrity cook and author Rustie Lee says: You’ve got to fall in love with your freezer. Don’t throw your food away whatever you do. Make up pies, soups and freeze them. If you’ve got lots of potatoes and things like that, parboil them, slice them, put them on a tray and freeze them separately. Freeze in portions. Put them away and plan for another time. We can’t let this thing overdo us, we’re all sad, but we’ve got to cheer ourselves up somehow. 

Q: Can my mother who lives in Scotland visit me in Tier 2 England for Christmas?

A: Dr Amir Khan says: Scotland is very clear. You must not cross the border into England unless it’s absolutely essential. Nicola Sturgeon has put a travel ban in place, so the short answer is no, she shouldn’t be crossing the border from Scotland even into a Tier 2 area. If there is another way she can connect with you, that is the safest and the right thing to do.

Q: Will there still be food on the shelves if I go shopping tomorrow, and should I be worried about panic buying?

A: Harry Wallop says: You should not be worried about panic buying. We said this way back in March, just putting one extra bag of pasta or loo roll that you think just in case, causes all sorts of disruption to the supply chain. The good news is that for supermarkets, this is their busiest week anyway so they are already geared up for huge amounts of stock. The food that we need for Christmas is already in the country. The issue is things like citrus fruits, there might be a small amount of shortages later this week but not before Christmas.

Q: How long does this virus linger on our shopping and parcels?

A: Dr Amir Khan says: The NHS and the World Health Organisation both state that catching coronavirus from packages or letters - the risk is minimal - almost nothing and there’s been no documented cases of that. Packages tend to go through different temperatures, different environments before they arrive at our doorsteps and it’s unlikely that the coronavirus can last on anything like that. 

There are studies that the virus can last on innate surfaces for up to nine days but that is in laboratory conditions, not life conditions. The safest thing to do is to wash your hands before and after handling packages and that’s enough. You don’t necessarily need to wipe them down. 

Q: I won’t be able to see my daughter who’s stuck in Tier 4, what can I do to make myself feel better?

A: Rustie Lee says: Ring your daughter all the time. Keep in touch, prepare your food and keep talking. Imagine that they were at home with you. Watch a film together and at the end, phone or face time each other and chat about it. Just keep talking. 

Q: What do you recommend for people who are concerned about their mental health

A: Dr Amir Khan says: The things that you can do is acknowledge your feelings. It is absolutely normal to feel down and low about how things are at the moment and talk to someone about it. It could be a family member or friend or perhaps a health care professional. Plan a routine every day, try and have a routine even if you’re at home when you otherwise might be at work. Have a routine. Wake up at the same time, do certain things that you look forward to. Try and get outside. I’m a big advocate for nature, for wellbeing. There’s lots of evidence for spending time outside in green space is really beneficial to your mental health.

If you don’t have any green spaces around, just going outdoors, looking up at the sky, looking at trees, it has been shown to be beneficial to your mental health and the exercise you get when you’re outside is also really good for your mental health. If your mental health is really deteriorating and it’s stopping you from doing the things you would normally do, pick up the phone, speak to your GP, the Samaritans are always available, ring NHS 111 if it’s out of hours. It’s really important to get the help you need if your mental health is really poor.

Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year. Call 116 123 for free or visit www.samaritans.org to get advice.

Q: How do we keep everyone’s spirits up this Christmas?

A: Rustie Lee says: Get as many funny films as you can. Just take them out and pull everybody together and laugh. Don’t look at sad films. Remember that you are loved, you are special. Just treat yourself. Dress up and make yourself look nice. If you’re on your own, make a lovely meal. Bring yourself up, look outside the window, think at least the birds are there, at least we’ve got beauty. Ring people. Ring at least five people and cheer them up. 

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