Minimizing the COVID-19 risk: advice to individuals, communities and governments for the winter holidays

Winter holidays are a time for family, community and renewal. This year more than ever, across the WHO European Region, people are anxious to gather together and reflect on what has been both an extraordinary and difficult 2020.

Annually across Europe, we see a massive increase in gatherings that bring together people of all ages, including families, religious groups and friends. This brings a significant risk of increased COVID-19 transmission during the upcoming holiday season.

Despite some fragile progress, COVID-19 transmission across the European Region remains widespread and intense. There is a high risk of further resurgence in the first weeks and months of 2021, and we will need to work together if we are to succeed in preventing it.

WHO makes a plea that everyone take the following points to heart.

  • We must all play our part to prevent yet another resurgence of cases in Europe.
  • Individual decisions this winter holiday won’t just affect you and the people closest to you – they will also impact your communities.
  • Do not underestimate the importance of your decisions and your power – as an individual, a family or a community – to influence what happens next in this pandemic.

Skiing and other gatherings: advice to governments

There are over 1000 ski resorts across the European Region. Eleven months into the pandemic, we know that ski resorts played a significant role in seeding the pandemic across Europe and that social gatherings were key in its resurgence during and after the summer.

Skiing does not spread COVID-19, but busy mountain resorts do. During the upcoming holidays, WHO recommends that countries carefully consider adapting the setup of seasonal activities to remove the possibility of crowding, especially in confined or closed settings, including during travel.

WHO offers this additional advice to countries for the winter.

  • Assess the winter gatherings that would normally happen, be they sporting, recreational or religious, and evaluate very carefully the risks associated with them. Authorities should consider postponing, limiting or cancelling mass gatherings in the current European transmission context.
  • Adjust and communicate decisions and any associated travel guidance early, based on how the virus is spreading domestically and internationally. Prevent those who have COVID-19 and their contacts from travelling.
  • Take measures to decongest public transport and key transportation hubs.

Celebrations, gatherings and travel: advice to individuals and communities

Despite risks, there are a few simple measures that individuals and communities can take to make the holidays and winter season as safe as possible.

On celebrations

Communities across the European Region are weighing whether or not to host religious processions, holiday markets and church celebrations. In countries experiencing widespread community transmission of the virus, postponing or reducing such gatherings should be seriously considered.

Regardless of location, religious services should take place differently this year. They should be held outdoors whenever possible or be limited in size and duration, with physical distancing, ventilation, hand hygiene and mask use, as appropriate.

On indoor gatherings

Indoor gatherings, even smaller ones, can be especially risky because they bring together groups of people, young and old, from different households, who may not all be adhering to the same infection prevention measures.

Gatherings should be held outside if possible, and participants should wear masks and maintain physical distancing. If held indoors, limiting group size and ensuring good ventilation to reduce exposure risk are key.

It may feel awkward to wear masks and practise physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy.

Vulnerable people and older friends or relatives may find it very difficult to ask loved ones to stay away physically, regardless of the anxieties or concerns they may have. Consider what others may be feeling and the difficult decisions they will be facing.

On travelling

For some people, travelling is the only way to visit families and friends. For those who are travelling, avoid any transportation that might be crowded.

Some countries require a negative test before granting access, and some others require quarantine. WHO encourages everyone to follow guidance from authorities when travelling.

While marking the holidays this year may look different, we can still make the most of it. We wish everyone a joyful and peaceful winter holiday season. Play it safe and stay healthy.

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