Return of household visits: How to deal with tense conversations this Christmas

A survey last month said 43% of people expected family disagreements about Covid risks when making festive plans.

NEW MEASURES ON household visits and inter-county travel take effect today, allowing people to move between counties and visit up to two other households indoors. 

This is aimed at allowing people to see family and friends over Christmas, likely seeing some people for the first time in several months due to the tightening of restrictions.

Regardless of your plans, there will inevitably be some uncomfortable conversations over the Christmas period – whether it’s about the turkey or different opinions on Covid-19 risks.

Restrictions on indoor dining and non-essential retail were eased earlier this month, but people are simultaneously being urged to limit their contacts ahead of visiting people at Christmas.

Pete Lunn, the head of behavioural research at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), told that this has resulted in feelings of being “socially pulled both ways”. 

“The signal has been given that we can relax for Christmas and people are now being pulled in multiple directions,” Lunn said. 

“There is an obligation towards family and possibly friends and other extended family to see them before Christmas because it’s a thing people usually do,” he said.

You might feel like you’re letting people down no matter what you do.

Results of an Amárach Research survey on attitudes, plans and expectations for Christmas this year were included in a letter from the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly last month before the latest restrictions were agreed.

The survey found that 43% of people said they expect disagreements within their family about how to handle Covid-19 risks when making Christmas arrangements. 

“Having honest conversations ahead of time and working your way through it would be good because different people have different willingness to put up with risk,” Lunn said. 

“Some people will have different views of the risk and we have to respect that and negotiating that ahead of time is the best way.”

Dr Eddie Murphy, a clinical psychologist, echoed the idea that it’s useful to have tense conversations ahead of time.

“Any conversation is about picking the right time and place and having a level of honesty about the conversation,” he said. 

Sometimes in Ireland we can fudge things, so it’s about having straight up conversations. Sometimes we might have to be a bit Dutch or American and be straight up with it.

“Regardless of Covid, relationships over Christmas can be strained and that’s a feature around expectations that people can have… I think Covid is going to bring a new level to that.” 

He said there would be “inevitable tensions” in certain situations, for example between people with different risk levels.

If one person is more risk-averse and another person is less cautious, it’s important for both to understand the other side.

“Listen to the other point of view – you have two ears and one mouth and you need to use them and listen twice as much,” Murphy said. 


The government has issued guidance about having a safe Christmas this year, and the World Health Organization has urged people in Europe to wear face masks during gatherings this festive season.

Pete Lunn said that “it’s important to keep in mind everything we have learned about what causes risk”.

“The best thing you can do is to meet people outdoors, get a cup of coffee with people outdoors, that kind of thing.”  

In terms of potential restrictions after Christmas, Lunn said evidence does not support the idea of behavioural fatigue.

He said behavioural evidence from the previous lockdowns show people in general abide by restrictions if they understand them and feel that others are also following them.

“We have taken a big risk over Christmas decisions and I think people know we have taken a risk.

We might get quite a substantial spike in late December or early January and how people respond when we get to a third wave… there is a chance that because we know we took a risk, we see the consequences are a third wave and I think people might knuckle down because we know we caused this.

“We’ve got to pay the time, as it were.” 

At the time of announcing that the country would be moving to Level 3 for December, the Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the government would not be afraid to act to bring in restrictions in January if Covid-19 numbers rise exponentially.

Government sources said earlier this week there is a “high chance” a short circuit-breaker of two weeks might be needed in January, with the view that such a move would be better than four weeks of restrictions in February or March. 

“One of the things that is so different about Christmas is that so much of it is traditional and habitual, but we have been breaking traditions and habits all year already,” Lunn said.  

“I think it will be perfectly possible to enjoy ourselves while being aware of the risks this Christmas.”

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