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Opinion: I'm gutted, but I have decided not to fly home for Christmas

Journalist Brian Whelan had planned to fly home from the UK this Christmas to see loved ones but has made the difficult decision not to travel.

Brian Whelan

THIS WEEK I made the toughest decision I’ve had to face since the Covid-19 pandemic began, it was a fitting end to a year filled with loss and disappointment for many.

On a Zoom call with my family, I outlined my fears about travelling to Ireland for Christmas and explained I would be cancelling my plans and staying away from home until it is safe for everyone.

My family understood, they didn’t want the risk of contributing to the further spread of Covid-19 and putting lives at risk when we are so close to the end.

I had made careful plans for how to return safely to Ireland from the UK. I mapped out a socially distanced Christmas that would allow me to see my family from afar.

The government advice still allows people to visit but I no longer have faith these rules will prevent a third wave, and to avoid participating in an international super-spreader event, I will spend Christmas in Hackney in London.

Life abroad

In April 2010 I left Ireland during a different crisis and moved to London, it was after the financial crash and I have been lucky to have a successful career here in the media – one that allows me to regularly travel home and see my parents.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly after I moved to the UK, and over the last decade each time I see him it is clear that he remembers me less and less. Though this does not diminish the time we spend together, I am aware that the longer I stay away the more of him I lose.

Like most Irish emigrants, the last time I was home was Christmas 2019, when the world was a very different place. You could stay out all night in packed pubs and hug people, cram missing months of lost interactions into a short visit.

I had one failed attempt to come home in October, no hotel would take me so I decided to focus my efforts on a foolproof Christmas plan. I started shopping for a van, specifically a Mazdo Bongo, that I could drive to a ferry, hide away in a cabin and then sleep in the back of my van without ever having to go inside a house.

Strangely, it seems I wasn’t the only person who thought of this. The price of vans skyrocketed and every time I found one for sale it was gone by the time I called. Instead, I found an apartment-style hotel to rent and decided I would take the car. Christmas was on.

When London came out of lockdown at the end of November it was clear that cases were going to immediately spike. Oxford street was rammed with shoppers. Pubs would sell you pints all night if you bought a salad and left it on the table.

Cases soared and we were taken into tier three.

The Irish diaspora

Since the start of the pandemic, I have had little faith in the ability of the current UK government to make decisions that put human life over commerce. We locked down too late and we tried to return to normal life too quickly.

Over 65,000 people died here and the economy has taken a major hit, our second wave will have killed 20,000 by Christmas. The deaths became background noise though, a statistic that seemed secondary to the rights of obnoxious newspaper columnists to rant about their freedom to have a big night out.

Britain has planned a “travel window” from 23 to 27 December, when tier-based travel rules will be suspended. Ireland planned to reduce quarantine to just five days, based on a complicated traffic light system.

It seems like a recipe for disaster, but this is an open route that would have allowed me to get to Dublin from a tier-three lockdown, with very few checks.

I believe that Ireland’s biggest export has always been young people. In times of economic hardship, we scatter across the globe to find work and build new lives.

It may not be clear from home, but very little is done to make us feel included in Irish life. Other diasporas retain the right to vote and even have political representation abroad, but we remain disenfranchised.

For some, Christmas is the only time they can afford to fly home. An estimated one million of us fly home each Christmas, travelling an average 800km.

It feels that if even a tiny percentage of these people travel home this Christmas, with the best intentions to social distance and stay safe on their chosen routes, Ireland’s healthcare systems will be rapidly overwhelmed.

For me the turning point was the call in the British Medical journal by top scientists, the people repeatedly ignored by Britain’s Conservative government, for Christmas mixing to be cancelled – that made me realise my error.

Personal responsibility

I believe that where governments have failed to make difficult decisions, we must now take personal responsibility to prevent a major third wave that has the potential to take the lives of thousands in Ireland and the UK. Where you can, please stay at home.

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Covid-19 is not just brought in from abroad though. For those spending Christmas Day with relatives who live nearby, the 60% surge in deaths after Thanksgiving in the US should serve as a tragic lesson.

For me Christmas will now be huddled around a Zoom screen, chatting in Whatsapp with friends and family spread across a dozen locations. Just like the night of the Toy Show there will be silly nostalgic tears and our hearts will long for home.

Many other families will have an empty seat at the table, for people they lost this year. Think of them, shelter in place. This pandemic will certainly end, and that end is in sight.

Brian Whelan is an Irish journalist living in London, he has worked in print, digital and broadcast news. He is currently focused on green solutions to the Covid-19 economic recovery.

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