To meet or not to meet – it’s the dilemma facing families across the UK as they consider plans for Christmas. In Leicester, the urge to see loved ones is maybe strongest of all, given its residents have been under Covid restrictions longer than anywhere in England.
Megan Payne had only seen her newest granddaughter twice before the Covid shutters slammed down on family meet-ups in March.
Summer saw a relaxation of the rules almost everywhere. But in Leicester almost nothing changed. Persistently high infection rates meant that by the start of July, the city was back in tougher measures. And Megan was not allowed to visit her daughter and young grandchildren.
Leicester was largely cut off from the rest of the country as people were advised against all but essential travel to, from, and within the city. While some restrictions were later lifted, many families and friends have remained unable to meet up in their homes or gardens. The city has shouldered the burden of the rules like nowhere else.
It has meant Megan and her husband David have been largely confined to their home since March. While he keeps a close eye on the infection rate and adapts his shopping routine accordingly, she has only left their one-bedroom bungalow four times. Aged 58 and living with chronic illness, she is keenly aware of the danger she faces with the virus in circulation.
“If I catch it I’m gone,” she says. “I’m diabetic so I’m more of a risk. That’s why we’ve been very, very careful not to go out.”
But the separation from family and friends has taken its toll. “I got so sick of staring at the same four walls, my husband has decorated the living room and bedroom eight times,” she says. If the end is not yet in sight, she can at least look forward to Christmas and the promise of a – brief – relaxation in the rules.
Between 23 and 27 December, curbs on socialising are being set aside. The decision is proving increasingly controversial as the infection rate rises in many areas. But, as it stands, for five days, people across the UK will be allowed to meet in each other’s homes.
And Megan and David are wasting no time. On 23 December – nine months to the day since Boris Johnson declared the first national lockdown – they are planning to travel to the neighbouring city of Nottingham to see their daughter and her family, including their two young grandchildren.
“We’re marking it off on the calendar, day by day,” says Megan. “I’m putting flags out. I want to go there tomorrow.”
In Nottingham, Megan’s 10-year-old granddaughter, Annabelle, is every bit as excited. “I really want to give them hugs and stuff but we can’t,” she says. “I feel very upset because I’ve not seen them for a long time and they make me have a big smile on my face, and they make me very happy.”
Annabelle’s baby sister, Jasmine-Rose, mainly knows her grandma through video calls.
“When the phone rings she hears my mum’s voice and crawls to get to the phone so she can see Grandma,” says Megan’s daughter, Anna-Marie Dawson. “She recognises the voice because she’s only heard her properly via the phone. My mum waves to her and she has started copying her.”
Anna-Marie is also looking forward to seeing her mum in the flesh again. “It’s been a nightmare not being able to see her face-to-face and have that human contact with her,” says the 36-year-old, who is asthmatic and therefore also potentially vulnerable to the virus.
As with many of us, the threat of the virus has hit home with some deeply personal consequences.
“My mental health has taken a major hit with it all, because when I do go out my anxiety has really tripled,” says Anna-Marie. She lost her baby son 15 years ago and normally visits his grave for his birthday. This year, for the first time, she couldn’t.
“I’ve gone no matter what for the last 15 years but when he turned 15 I didn’t go because I couldn’t do it,” she says. “Because of anxiety and everything going off, it has been too scary.”
The news the restrictions would be relaxed for Christmas buoyed her immensely. Anna-Marie phoned her mum as soon as she heard. “Before it got announced I was dreading Christmas, but [then] I was like ‘Yes, we can see people’. We were all over the moon and hyperactive. It was so much fun, planning it all for them to come over.”
Back in Leicester, Megan’s husband David hopes the long separation will make the family get-together all the sweeter. “[Annabelle] wants me to go over, but how can you tell a 10-year-old that you can’t travel?” he asks.
When they meet for real next week, the children can look forward to some undivided grandparent attention.
Megan admits she is “a bit worried” by warnings that relaxing restrictions will fuel a further surge in infections, but she is not deterred.
“My daughter has got everything set up to be safe but I hope the train isn’t busy,” she says. “If I keep my mask on and keep my distance from everybody it should be all right.”
Anne-Marie supports the relaxation of rules over Christmas. “My mum doesn’t go out and we don’t go out so I think we’re safe,” she says.
She can’t wait for the moment when her mum and step-dad leave the city that has been in lockdown longer than anywhere else in England – even if the meeting is only for a day.
“We’re going to have a chit chat, they are going to play with the girls, do a little tea party,” she says. “We can’t wait. I just want to cuddle her and have a laugh. It’s going to be fun.”