James Mcallister was a much-loved family man. Did the Christmas mixing confusion cause his death?


All through the spring of 2020, and into the summer, Michelle Mcallister carefully shielded her husband, James Mcallister. Michelle, 39, who lives in the Wednesfield area of Wolverhampton, was a full-time carer to James, 52. A former used car dealer, James had heart failure and had used a colostomy bag since a stomach ulcer burst in 2016. He was unable to work and was often in pain, reliant on a walking stick and occasionally a wheelchair to get around.

The couple had three children: Luke, 22, Lauren, 19, and Morgan, 10. (Only the girls, Lauren and Morgan, lived with their parents.) When the kids came home from school or work, Michelle would make them sanitise their hands at a makeshift station she had improvised on a table by the front door. Only Michelle did the food shopping, as quickly as she could, to minimise exposure to the virus. Throughout the first wave, into the winter, Michelle kept James safe. “I thought that if James got Covid he would be really poorly or it would kill him,” Michelle says. “He was the one person I was worried about.”

But then Christmas rolled around and Michelle and her family began making plans. They were reassured by the government’s announcement that Christmas mixing was permissible, provided they bubbled with only three households for a five-day period. “I thought: ‘Things are getting back to normal now, we can start living again,’” she says.

Her parents’ wedding anniversary falls on 23 December, so they planned to visit then, along with her brother’s family. Then, on Christmas Day, there would be a family lunch, also at her mum’s house. After almost a year under virtual house arrest, James was delighted. “He was really looking forward to it,” says Michelle.

Looking back, her decision to meet up is the biggest regret of her life. “We should have known better,” she says. “We shouldn’t have listened to what they were saying … I wish to God we’d just listened to ourselves and thought: ‘No way, we aren’t going to mix.’ I really do.”


When the prime minister, Boris Johnson, put England into a second national lockdown on 31 October 2020, his stated ambition was to enable families to gather for Christmas. “Christmas is going to be different this year, perhaps very different, but it’s my sincere hope and belief that by taking tough action now we can allow families across the country to be together,” Johnson said.

The second lockdown was effective at suppressing case numbers. On the day England emerged from it, 2 December, there were 16,170 throughout the UK, down from a peak of 33,470 on 12 November. But by 9 December, the number of new cases began creeping up again: 16,578 that day; 20,964 the following one; 21,672 the day after that. The trajectory was clear. The country was entering a third wave of the pandemic.

Despite this, the government continued to insist that Christmas mixing would be allowed in England, in bubbles of three households, for a five-day period from 23 December. In anticipation, Christmas shoppers thronged the streets.

Other countries had cancelled or pared back their cultural or religious festivals. The Chinese government cancelled lunar new year in January 2020, usually the cause of the world’s biggest annual migration. Had it not done so, Chinese cases could have been 67 times higher, according to researchers from Fudan University and the University of Southampton. Only 10,000 pilgrims were allowed to travel to Mecca for the hajj – usually, more than 2 million people do so. In April 2020, Israel banned household mixing during Passover.

James with Morgan.
James with Morgan. Photograph: Courtesy of the Family

In England, by mid-November, a growing chorus of voices had begun to warn that permitting households to mix over the Christmas period would be a calamitous error. Speaking on Newsnight on 18 November, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member and epidemiologist Prof Andrew Hayward warned against it. “I just couldn’t understand why the government would be essentially encouraging people to mix for up to five days, when the rest of the messaging was around the need for social distancing,” says Hayward now, speaking in a personal capacity. “That seemed reckless, to be honest.”

Sage advised the government that Covid infections could double over Christmas, if households were permitted to mix. Why was the government so determined to push ahead with Christmas at all costs? Prof Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews is a member of Independent Sage, a collective of scientists working to provide independent advice to the government, and the Sage behavioural science subgroup SPI-B. He believes the government thought that people would mix over Christmas regardless of the rules. “The assumption was that, if they put into place restrictions, people wouldn’t abide by them,” Reicher says. “The government had to bend, otherwise people would break.”

Hayward thinks the government was determined to find a way to reward people for their sacrifices: “There was this sense that we’d had a hard year and deserved to get together for Christmas.” By locking down in November, the government thought it could “pay” in advance for relaxing the rules at Christmas. “It seems a strange form of accounting,” Hayward says.

On 25 November, families bereaved in the first wave of the pandemic spoke to the Guardian, warning against mixing on Christmas Day. “There was a real sense of fear in our group,” says Jo Goodman of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. “Our thoughts immediately went to the families that would be bereaved. We recognised that morale in the country was low and people needed something to look forward to. But presenting Christmas mixing as safe when clearly it wasn’t made us all feel really concerned.”

On 11 December, Independent Sage urged the government to cancel plans to allow households to mix indoors, stating that celebrations should be held outdoors, where the risk of transmission is far lower. As Reicher puts it: “If you wanted to give a Christmas present to the virus, you would get people to mix around dinner tables indoors – which would be crowded, so social distancing wouldn’t happen – in rooms that won’t be well ventilated, because it’s winter. People will have their heating on and the windows closed.”

On 13 December, Prof Devi Sridhar, a global public health expert at the University of Edinburgh, tweeted: “Christmas mixing in the UK is a terrible idea. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” She did so because she believed it was her job to speak truth to power. “As scientists, we don’t need to be popular with the electorate,” Sridhar says. “Anyone could see from the numbers that we were in a fragile position. It would have been better to be straightforward with people.”

Covid cases ticked upwards. On 15 December, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal (HSJ) published a rare joint editorial, urging the government to “reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing” over Christmas. The HSJ’s editor, Alastair McLellan, had been watching in horror as the numbers crept up in December. He knew that the NHS struggled every January just to cope with the numbers hospitalised with winter flu. “No one wanted to be the person who cancelled Christmas,” McLellan says. “But I thought to myself: ‘I can’t let this happen.’”

The editorial got the attention McLellan had hoped for. Later that day, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, urged the government to review the guidance on Christmas mixing. “I understand that people want to spend time with their families after this awful year, but the situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse,” Starmer said. But that evening Johnson insisted that Christmas would be continuing as planned, arguing that it would be “inhuman” to cancel it.

By mid-December, a clamour of voices, many of them distinguished scientists, were calling for Christmas to be cancelled. Johnson would ignore them until the very last minute.


James was from a Scottish Traveller background, although his family stopped travelling when he was a child – his mum had had enough of the life and wanted to settle down. The family moved from Dundee to Walsall when James was five. One hallmark of travelling life that stayed with him was James’s tidiness. He had a horror of mess. “A lot of Travellers are like that,” says Michelle, explaining that you can’t be messy when you live in a caravan.

The couple met at the Fountain pub, in Walsall, which was run by Michelle’s mum. Michelle worked behind the bar and James was a regular. He had just separated from his wife, with whom he had three children. “Tell you the truth, I didn’t think much of him,” Michelle says. Although she didn’t know it, James mostly came into the pub to catch a glimpse of her. James liked the way she dressed: always in a T-shirt and jeans, not heavily made-up. Simple. Michelle grew to care for his personality. “He was always laughing, always joking. Happy-go-lucky.”

When they started dating, Michelle was 16 and James was 29. James was initially put off by the age difference, but it didn’t bother Michelle. They moved in together almost immediately and had Luke shortly afterwards. “We had a good life together,” says Michelle. “We had a lot of laughs.” James would tease Michelle, but he could also be spontaneously romantic. “He’d randomly show up with a bunch of flowers. I’d ask him what he’d done and he’d say: ‘Nothing! I love you.’”

James and Michelle’s wedding … ‘I don’t know if he was crying because he was getting married or not! He was an emotional wreck.’
James and Michelle’s wedding … ‘I don’t know if he was crying because he was getting married or not! He was an emotional wreck.’ Photograph: Courtesy of the family

Although James had proposed when Michelle was 18, they didn’t marry until 15 years later, in 2015. “We just never got around to it,” says Michelle. On their wedding day, at the County hotel in Walsall, James couldn’t stop sobbing. He sobbed as Michelle walked down the aisle. He sobbed throughout their vows and throughout their first dance. “I don’t know if he was crying because he was getting married or not! He was an emotional wreck,” Michelle says.

James was a soft-hearted person who would cry during sad films. He treated his two dogs, Pebbles and Tuppence, more like children. “He was in love with Pebbles,” says Michelle. “Everywhere James went, she went with him. She was a tiny dog and she would try to bite everybody. James used to laugh about it. His mates would stroke her and she’d bite them and he’d say: ‘Good girl.’” Pebbles slept in bed with them and would sometimes growl and bite Michelle’s leg at night. “I’d say to James: ‘I’m going to chuck her out of the bloody door one of these days!’ And he’d say: ‘I’ll chuck you out first.’”

James was fastidious. If someone left a wet towel on the floor, he would get annoyed. He would often shout at the kids to vacuum after themselves. “He loved everything immaculate,” Michelle says. “He couldn’t have a lazy day and relax.” James also had a thing about aftershave and would keep dozens of bottles in a box under his bed, which drove Michelle crazy. But, apart from that, James was easy to love, even if his accident-prone nature occasionally resulted in serious harm. “He didn’t see danger,” says Michelle. “If he’d been a cat, he would have used up his nine lives.”

At Christmas time in 2010, James was spray-painting a vehicle and put a spray can in the kettle to warm up the paint. It exploded. “We had the bomb squad there,” says Michelle. “The police, the fire brigade, everything.” All the windows in the house blew out, as did the front door, although, miraculously, the Christmas tree remained standing. Michelle was out at the time and James was so terrified that she would be angry when she came home that he panicked and started scrubbing the paint off the walls, thinking that somehow she wouldn’t notice the front door and windows were missing. “He was shouting at the kids: ‘Quick, tidy up so your mum doesn’t notice!’” Michelle says with a laugh. Afterwards, James was hospitalised with shock.

In 2016, James had to stop work after his stomach ulcer burst; his stomach swelled up so much that he looked like a pregnant woman. Michelle cared for him full-time. The kids would come home from school and spend hours talking to their dad. Lauren would tease him about his height (he was only 5ft 6in) and he would tease her back (she is 5ft 2in). “Our relationship didn’t change much,” says Michelle of James’s illness. “We were still close. James didn’t like to be cared for, but that was just James. He was a strong-willed person.”

For years, Michelle ferried him to hospital appointments and kept on top of his medication. The pandemic hit and still he stayed safe. Then Christmas 2020 came around and the family relaxed.


On 19 December, the government could hold back the tide no longer. Johnson scheduled a press conference. London, the south-east and the east of England would enter new tier 4 restrictions from 20 December. No one would be permitted to travel in or out of those areas, in which Christmas mixing would be banned. For people living in tiers 1-3, Christmas mixing would still be permitted, but only on Christmas Day. It was the 14th significant government U-turn that year.

Announcing the measures, Johnson leaned heavily on the emergence of a new variant of the Covid virus, B117, more commonly known as the Kent variant, which the government’s advisory body on new viral threats, Nervtag, had found to be up to 70% more transmissible. During his speech and the subsequent press conference, Johnson – plus the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and its chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty – mentioned the new variant no fewer than 33 times. “When the facts change, you have to change your approach,” Johnson said.

But the government had known about the new variant well before Johnson said it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas. It was first identified by researchers on 20 September. By the last week of November, it had become the dominant strain in south-east England. On 14 December, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told the House of Commons that the variant could have been responsible for a rise in cases in south-east England.

McLellan, the editor of the HSJ, strongly resists the narrative that the government’s last minute U-turn was an understandable response to the sudden emergence of a dramatically more transmissible variant: “If you look at the data, it was clear that something was happening long before the government required people to cancel their Christmas mixing plans.” It was not that the new variant was not a concern – it certainly was. “The new variant was the engine of the third wave, but only because it was allowed to be – because of the government’s delayed reaction to it.” From 9 December, Covid case numbers were clearly surging, yet, for 10 days, the government insisted Christmas was still happening, allowing people to make plans and go Christmas shopping.

The Sage member Hayward agrees that the numbers were going up anyway and the new variant accelerated it: “It may have led to things getting out of hand even faster than one might have predicted. But even without the new variant, the rise in cases was such that we would have wanted to intervene.”

At home on the evening of 19 December, Lewis Baker, a 30-year-old supermarket worker from Woolwich, south-east London, didn’t even bother to finish watching Johnson’s press conference. Baker is originally from Llanelli in south Wales. He had planned to go home on Christmas Eve. “As soon as Johnson announced it, my auntie called me and said: ‘You have to come tonight,’” Baker says. “There wasn’t even time to weigh it up properly.” If he was to make it before midnight, he had six hours – “and the journey took five hours”. In his haste to make the train, Baker forgot his Christmas presents. “I was in such a rush,” he says. “Because I didn’t want to break any rules, but I also wanted to spend time with my family.”

He wasn’t alone. As news spread that Christmas was being cancelled, hordes descended on railway stations in London, frantic to get to their families before the city entered tier 4. When Baker arrived at Paddington station, the station was rammed. “There was a bit of panic,” he says. “Everyone seemed to be rushing.” Overcrowded trains chugged out of London, potentially spreading the new variant to all corners of the country. “It was packed,” says Claudia, who is 27 and works in publishing. She boarded a train from London to Leeds that evening. “They were making announcements that, due to overcrowding, it wouldn’t be possible to socially distance.”

King’s Cross station on 20 December, as people rushed to beat the new Christmas restrictions.
King’s Cross station on 20 December, as travellers rushed to beat the new Christmas restrictions. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Baker, who had not seen his family all year, defends his decision to flee London before tier 4 restrictions came in. “It’s easy to scapegoat the general public,” he says. “But they shouldn’t have been having to make those decisions.” Claudia questions why the government delayed the introduction of restrictions until the following day. “It was a shambles,” she says. “What did they think would happen if they promised people they could have Christmas and pulled the rug out from under their feet with a few hours until the deadline?”

From a public health perspective, it was a messaging disaster. “To march people up to the top of the hill at Christmas and then say ‘no’ means that, inevitably, not everyone is going to do it,” says Reicher of Independent Sage. “By and large, compliance rates have been extremely high in this pandemic. But saying to people you can do something and suddenly changing things later on is unhelpful.”

On Christmas Day 2020, 32,725 cases of Covid-19 were recorded in the UK, more than one-third more than there had been on 31 October, when Johnson ordered England into a second national lockdown. And yet, on 25 December, households across England opened up to relatives. Those living in tiers 1 to 3 hugged elderly relatives and welcomed them into their homes. They sat around Christmas tables, laughing and joking.

Within weeks, some of these people would be gasping for air in hospital wards. James was one of them.


On 23 December, Michelle, James and the children, except for Luke, drove to her parents’ house, to give them their Christmas presents. It was her parents’ 46th wedding anniversary. Michelle bought her mum a clock and her dad some aftershave. “My mum made us all cups of tea and we sat around going on about how much we were looking forward to Christmas Day,” Michelle says. Her brother and his family also came over; they took photos together, arm in arm, on the sofa.

Really, they shouldn’t have been there. Wolverhampton was in tier 3, meaning that three-household Christmas bubbles were still permitted, but only on 25 December. But Michelle hadn’t got the message that the guidance had changed. Until the point we speak, Michelle is still under the illusion that mixing was permissible for a five-day window over Christmas. I tell her that the guidance changed on 19 December. “That’s the first I heard,” she says, momentarily speechless. “I never heard that.” After a pause, she goes on: “Around Christmas, you’re rushing around, getting everything prepared. You aren’t listening much to what’s going on.”

It was not that the government ever said explicitly that Christmas mixing was safe. The guidance was equivocal and left decisions to the individual. It read: “To protect you and your loved ones, think carefully about the risks of forming a bubble. You should only do so if you feel you need to.” But for every person who read this and decided, on balance, that they would prefer to have a digital Christmas, there were many more who skimmed the news, saw that mixing was legally permissible and decided that the government wouldn’t allow something to go ahead that was not safe. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s sensible … you wouldn’t drive at 70mph if there was a very icy road,” said Whitty at a Downing Street press conference on 16 December.

But a deadly pandemic is not a motorway. Covid is an invisible, deadly virus. And a year under virtual house arrest was enough to make otherwise sensible people hit the gas. They wanted to see their families for the first time in months. The nuance of the government’s messaging was lost. All people heard was: mixing at Christmas is allowed. And so mix they did.

Of Johnson, Michelle says: “I thought: ‘He’s saying it’s safe. Surely it is safe.’” This, Sridhar says, was a reasonable position. “It’s like tap water,” she says. “If the government tells you that tap water is safe to drink, you drink it. Here, the government was saying: it’s safe to mix among families. So people thought it was safe.”

By Christmas Day, James felt lousy. He got up to watch the children open their presents and unwrapped the gift that Michelle had bought for him: an Armani watch. But he had no appetite, even when Michelle offered to make him a fry-up, their Christmas morning tradition. James took himself back to bed. Michelle went to her mum’s for lunch, with the kids. “When I got there, Mum was bad,” she says. “She’d prepared everything, but couldn’t put it out.” When Michelle returned home that evening, James was still in bed.

On Boxing Day, Michelle’s mum, who is 63, was rushed to Walsall Manor hospital with pneumonia. There, she tested positive for Covid. Michelle took James for a Covid test on 28 December. On the afternoon of 29 December, James couldn’t breathe, so Michelle called an ambulance, which took him to New Cross hospital in Wolverhampton. Their tests came back that same afternoon: both were positive.

It was a horror show. Everywhere Michelle looked, family members were falling ill, one after another, like dominos. “It was petrifying,” says Michelle. “When they took James to hospital, my mum was still in hospital. I called my mum and cried. I said: ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Shortly afterwards, Michelle’s brother was also hospitalised with Covid. Her 75-year-old father was left at home, on his own. Michelle was also sick and she was terrified that she and James would die and leave their children orphans. “I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she says.

At hospital, James was put on a continuous positive airway pressure ventilator, which is used to support breathing. He would try to call Michelle, but all she could hear was the wailing of the machine. He was too weak to text. On 6 January, James phoned her in the early hours of the morning, but again he was inaudible. Michelle phoned back and a nurse told her that doctors wanted to put James on a ventilator, but he was resisting. “I got back on the phone to James and said: ‘If you have to go on it, you have to go on it,’” she says.

Michelle with Luke,Morgan and Lauren …‘We might end up losing our home.’
Michelle with Luke, Morgan and Lauren …‘We might end up losing our home.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

James relented. Doctors sedated him and placed him on the ventilator. By that evening, he was in organ failure. The hospital told Michelle and the older children to come in. “I told him to be strong,” says Michelle. “I told him he could fight this. I talked to him about the kids, about the dogs, as if he could hear me. I told him how much we loved him and stroked his head.” Michelle and the kids begged James to fight.

Even when James was hospitalised, Michelle still believed he would pull through. He had been hospitalised so many times before and always came home. “It felt like it was happening to someone else and I was watching it on a film, from the outside, looking in,” she says. “I was more worried about my children, because Luke and Lauren were crying. It was heartbreaking. There’s not a word I can say to describe what it was like, watching the life go out of him.”

James died on the evening of 6 January. The worst part, Michelle says, was going home and telling Morgan. “She was in her bedroom. I said: ‘You know your dad is very poorly?’ She said: ‘Yeah.’ I said: ‘He’s gone to sleep and he’s not going to wake up. He’s in heaven now.’ She started crying her heart out. There was nothing I could say.”

Michelle is adamant that she and James contracted Covid on 23 December. “If it wasn’t for that day at my mum’s, I know James would still be here,” she says. “We caught it that day.”


It is difficult to quantify exactly how many people died as a result of the government’s dithering over the Christmas mixing; the effect was mitigated because many people had fewer contacts while their workplaces were closed. The third wave peaked on 8 January 2021, when 68,053 new cases were recorded, two weeks to the day after Christmas. (The incubation period of Covid-19 can range from a matter of days up to two weeks.) Deaths jumped from 570 on 25 December to 1,162 on 7 January.

Belatedly, the government has realised that overpromising in a pandemic is a bad idea. When Johnson announced the “roadmap” out of lockdown on 21 February, he cut a noticeably less bullish figure. “It is … crucial that this roadmap should be cautious, but also irreversible,” said the prime minister. The HSJ’s McLellan believes it is important that the government is not allowed to spin away the mess it made of its Christmas mixing policy. “I want the facts to remain … Thousands of people died as a result. And lots of people got very ill.”

The rest of Michelle’s family pulled through unscathed. She is grateful they are safe, but struggling to adjust to life without James. She feels isolated. “If this had happened before Covid, I could have gone to my family for comfort and they could see me … It’s made things so much more upsetting.” She gets angry when she sees people on Facebook calling Covid a conspiracy. “I blocked one woman because she said that the government wouldn’t get her to wear a mask.”

Morgan cries at night, for her dad. Money is tight in the household because Michelle is no longer classed as James’s carer, meaning their benefits have been reduced. Michelle had to sell her car to pay for James’s funeral. She is looking for work, but hasn’t found anything. “We might end up losing our home,” Michelle says.

In her lowest moments, she reproaches herself for James’s death. “You want someone to blame,” she says, flatly. “And the only person I can see to blame is myself. Because I think we shouldn’t have gone to my mum’s.” James’s Christmas watch is still sitting in its box. He opened it, but never put it on. Michelle doesn’t know what to do with it. It is a painful reminder of a Christmas now for ever tinged with regret.

Some names have been changed.





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