My family has a vaccine refusenik – should we still get together at Christmas?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s faced this difficulty this year. One of my family members, who’s in his 40s, has consistently refused to be vaccinated against Covid and will not be moved from his position. He will not explain his reasons for rejecting the vaccine, whether it is ideological or simply rebellion against the so-called “nanny state”.

He has already been (politely but firmly) excluded from one family get-together as a result of his intransigence. We have explained that he is not being rejected personally, but there are concerns within the family about his vulnerability to catching the virus and transmitting the infection to the children and their grandparents.

Before Covid, we used to get together with grandchildren and in-laws for Christmas. Last year we all celebrated separately as Covid made it impossible to gather. None of us dares broach the subject of a family gathering this year, and everyone, except the person in question is too polite and kind to tackle the dilemma head-on. I suspect we’ll just repeat last year’s plan, but it annoys me that this vaccine-refuser has spoiled a family tradition.

Does it really matter about a lost Christmas? It does for the older members of the family, who treasure any time with their kids. It is difficult to know what his priority is, although so far it seems to be his own needs.

In a sense, what his priority is isn’t really the point here. What’s yours? What’s important to you? You’ve already excluded him from one gathering, why not another? If the rest of you all feel the same, I think the best thing to do is face this head-on and just explain that, because of his stance on vaccination and the fact he doesn’t want to get vaccinated, you’ll have to go ahead without him.

If you need some facts and figures, try these from David Spiegelhalter, who is chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University and author of The Art of Statistics. He quoted a recent government report that “shows that having the vaccine reduces the risk of someone getting infected by 65-80%, and, if they do happen to catch it, it reduces the risk of passing it on by 35-65%, as they tend to get a milder disease. So, overall, the risk of someone else catching it from them, if they are unvaccinated, is perhaps about eight times the risk compared with if they were vaccinated. Of course the risk is zero if they are absolutely sure they have not got it, but otherwise not being vaccinated is greatly raising the risk for anyone who is vulnerable and close to them.”

Spiegelhalter and I wondered if your relative having a lateral flow test before coming, and on arrival, is an option. These tests, he says, “are meant to be very good (90% effective) at picking up people who are infectious.”

But there are a few things to think about first. You mention grandchildren but not their ages. If they haven’t been vaccinated, because the government programme doesn’t include them yet, (currently in the UK, only ages 12 and up are offered the vaccine) they too pose a risk, possibly more than your refusenik family member if they are at school, and he doesn’t go out much.

Of course, this all depends on whether you actually want your relative to come or not. If you don’t, his refusal of the vaccine is a useful get-out; if you do, you may be able to find a way to minimise the risk of him coming if he takes a test. It strikes me that unless none of you ever goes out, you may be sitting next to someone unvaccinated on the bus, in the GP surgery, in church or in a restaurant.

I believe it’s a real shame for a Christmas get-together not to happen at all, just because of this one family member; we’ve all missed out on quite a lot already. So I think the option I’d go for is to do it, but without him.

You can’t force him to get vaccinated, but he can’t force you to spend time with him.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

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