Christmas 2020 Travel – a temporary easing of social distancing rules across the UK. What could this mean for our roads and rail?

Christmas 2020 Travel – A Transport Guide is written by James Hetherington

The latest nationwide lockdown

The number of daily cases in the UK appeared to plateau and fall towards the end of the four-week nationwide lockdown, while Office for National Statistics data suggested that the percentage of people testing positive fell in all regions except for the North East England. However, the Government was criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for the modelling and data used to justify the lockdown, which mandated the closure of all non-essential shops, restaurants, pubs, and gyms.

Where are we now?

On December 2nd, following a four-week lockdown, the UK returned to a tiered system designed to help reduce the spread of Coronavirus. Most of the country is currently under Tier 2 (High Alert) or Tier 3 (Very High Alert) rules, both of which prohibit households from mixing indoors.

You can find more guidance on these tiered restrictions here.

Tis this season to be jolly careful! So what are the rules this Christmas?

There will be fewer Christmas 2020 travel restrictions – but only for five days.

In November, the Government confirmed that up to three households will be able to mix between December 23rd and 27th. These households will be known as ‘Christmas bubbles’.

Until December 23rd – and from December 28th until further notice – the existing tiered system will continue to apply. 

You can fine further guidance for the Christmas period here.

Why some are concerned about the temporary easing of restrictions

We’re probably all familiar with what the big Christmas rush looks like in a normal year. 

Crowded stations, packed trains, gridlocked motorways – you name it! 

This is despite the fact that the festive getaway is usually staggered over several days anyway.

But this year is different

Unless there is a change in policy, it is likely that the vast majority of the UK population will remain in Tier 2 or Tier 3. Restrictions will stand until December 23rd and then again from December 28th. This will mean most households will not be allowed to mix indoors before December 23rd.

What this might mean for public transport

In theory, this might mean that the millions of Britons who rely on public transport would only be able to travel on December 23rd or the 24th to visit another household for Christmas – unlike a normal year when they might travel before those dates (i.e. the last Sunday before Christmas, which falls on Dec 20th this year).

What public transport is running on Christmas day 2020?

Like every Christmas, trains will not be running on Christmas Day, and only a small number of routes will be operating on Boxing Day. However, National Express and Megabus will operate a limited number of coaches on Christmas Day.

And what about returning home via public transport after Christmas Day?

Due to the limited number of train services operating on Boxing Day, most, if not all of those reliant on public transport, would have no option but to return home on December 27th, after which the tiered system will resume.

Trains and buses are still operating at reduced capacity

All trains and buses must comply with social distancing guidelines, which means no more than 50% of seats can be occupied at any time. 

And for trains, that’s not the whole story. 

Think of a time when you had to take a last-minute train to visit family at Christmas?

There’s a good chance it was standing room only. Well, this year, trains are only able to operate at about a fifth of their capacity – although this doesn’t take into account the number of carriages, engineering works or train frequency, all of which can obviously affect the number of passengers that can travel each day.

So will there be extra carriages and services to compensate for this?

Just before the Christmas rules were confirmed, the Transport Minister, Grant Shapps, urged people to avoid travelling by train and to ‘look very carefully’ at the route they take over the festive period. 

However, in a statement to the House of Commons on December 3rd, about a week after the Christmas guidelines were confirmed, he expressed a somewhat more optimistic tone. 

To help compensate for the increased demand for rail services, Mr Shapps confirmed the the Government would institute the following measures to help people travel safely during the festive period:

But will all of this be enough to keep people moving, safely?

Despite these measures, the Campaign for Better Transport has urged the Government to allow two additional ‘travel days’ to help even out the demand for rail services and reduce road congestion. Technically, this recommendation is already set down in Northern Ireland’s rules, which will permit up to three households to mix between December 22nd and 28th.

It is difficult to predict whether an increase in public transport frequency will be enough to compensate for the reduced capacity of coaches and train carriages. In London, for example, almost half of households don’t have a car, so there is no option but to use public transport, or to rely on friends or family members who have a car, when travelling long distances. But if many Londoners decide to stay at home this Christmas, the demand for trains and coaches from London stations won’t be as high as anticipated.

However, the AA suggests Christmas 2020 Travel might not be as busy as some fear

Surprisingly, the AA has projected that congestion will only be about half the usual level for the Christmas period. In a poll of 16,500 motorists, only just under a quarter (24%) intended to drive between December 18th and January 4th 2021 – less than half the percentage for the same period in 2019-2020.

The AA also welcomed the decision to remove hundreds of miles of roadworks on motorways and main roads during the festive period. This should help reduce congestion on the busiest routes, such as motorway junctions near big shopping centres, the association said.

But on the busiest days, won’t roads still be busier than a normal Christmas?

That is the golden question. Even if there are fewer journeys overall this Christmas, that doesn’t mean there won’t be congestion on the dates when people do travel.

Think of it like rainfall. 1 inch of rain is going to be far less problematic for a transport network if it falls over many hours. But if the same amount of rain falls in just half an hour, it could quickly overwhelm a transport network.

Or think about how social distancing is designed to slow the spread of the Coronavirus so that healthcare services don’t become overwhelmed by a rapid increase in hospitalisations. 

The truth is, we just don’t know how busy the Christmas getaway will be

The AA says millions of Brits still don’t know whether they will stay at home or visit other households during the festive period.

About a third of drivers have yet to decide whether to travel at all this Christmas – and this ‘could make all the difference’, says AA President Edmund King.

Could our recent shopping habits give us a clue about what Christmas might be like? 

During the weekend of December 5-6th, shortly after the nationwide lockdown ended on December 2nd, many high streets across the UK were busy as people flocked to the shops for their Christmas shopping. This caused a great deal of alarm on social media, with people sharing photos of packed shops and streets, but when you dig into the data, you’ll notice that overall footfall was still lower than the same period in 2019. The number of people visiting the high streets on December 5th. About 38% lower compared to Saturday, December 7th, 2019.

When you consider most shops in England were closed since 5.11.20, you may have expected the footfall to be much higher. So this suggests many of us are limiting the amount of time we spend at the shops – and doing more of our shopping online. Indeed, 17 million of us had already finished our Christmas shopping online before the shops even re-opened on December 2nd!

But while many of us have gone ‘virtual’ for our shopping’, that doesn’t necessarily mean we all want a ‘virtual Christmas’ in its entirety

It’s not yet clear how many Britons will be visiting family and friends over the festive period – but it’s reasonable to assume that it will be in the millions. Some may opt for a ‘virtual Christmas’ in the form of Facetime and Zoom meetings – typically with extended family members and friends who live far away. For others, though, that just won’t be an acceptable substitute for a face-to-face Christmas with all the trimmings.

However, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has warned that Coronavirus infections could double over Christmas. Showing that up to 50% of people in one household can be infected by one infected member. 

You can read more guidance here on how to reduce your risk of catching and spreading Coronavirus when forming a Christmas bubble. 

Luckily, thanks to the latest vaccine developments, we’re one big step closer to normality

The great news is a vaccine is being distributed rolled out. Something which seemed like a distant dream when the pandemic began in the spring. While it is unlikely to have any measurable impact on curbing infections until later in the winter, it gives us the certainty that this pandemic will come to an end and that normal life will resume once again.

When that happens is still open for debate! The Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hoped that life would return to normal in the UK by Easter.

Let’s hope so too.

In the meantime, here are a few final points for your Christmas 2020 Travel:

If you’re planning to take public transport:

If you live in Northern Ireland

If you’re planning to travel by car or coach

From the whole team at Solutionlabs we wish you a Merry Christmas.

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